Tactical BS: England vs. Russia Euro 2016

In my first Tactical BS piece I wrote about Patrice Evra’s inability to handle his tactical assignment in France’s opening match against Romania. Evra was asked to cover along the entire length of the field without cover. His 35 year old legs did not have the energy to complete this task. Today’s Tactical BS takes an in depth look at England’s opening match against Russia focusing on England starter Kyle Walker. Like Evra, Kyle Walker is an outside back (although he plays on the right). Walker is 26 years old and just completed a great season in the Premier League with title contenders Tottenham.

England lineup russia
Photo Credit: Sky Sports

To Be Young and Fast

Walker is 26 years old and is fast. Like really really fast. He may be the fastest player at these European Championships. Kyle parlays this breathtaking speed with above average endurance even for professional soccer players. He outpaces most of his peers from the opening whistle to the end of a 90 minute match. Over the course of the premier league season, Walker would often sprint forward with a 60 yard run from defense to join a quick-launching counter attack and then race back that same 60 yards to make a last ditch tackle to prevent a shot on goal.

There’s a well known phenomenon in sports, where very athletic (either strong, fast, or both) players rely on their superior athleticism to find success at the top level of their profession.This pure athleticism inevitably declines as players age. Once athletes leave their athletic prime they must rely on their mental guile, skill, and experience to continue producing at a high level. Many great athletes drop off the map when they cannot overpower opponents with athleticism (see Aaron Lennon’s drop in production from 2008 until today). Some great athletes learn to compensate for their physical limitations and alter their approach to remain successful (see Ryan Giggs’ transformation from breakthrough in the 1990’s up until his retirement 23 years later).

Walker has seemingly approached the rare combination of athleticism and mental maturity found in only the top echelon of world soccer. He is still in his athletic prime and has already developed a keen sense of awareness on the soccer pitch. His decision making is very much improved from his early years in England. He understands when to launch attacks forward, when to track back, when to keep possession, when to whip crosses in, when to overlap. Oh, and again, he’s really fast. Basically, Kyle Walker is damn good at soccer.

Kyle Walker
Photo Credit: AP

This afternoon, Walker was asked to handle a similar job to Evra’s in England’s opening game, albeit with different circumstances. Evra was forced to cover so much ground on the left because the left wing ahead of him, Payet, was more worried with finding the ball in the middle of the field than staying wide in his starting position. Walker was not covering for an out of position Right winger; in fact, Walker’s consistent runs up and down the England sideline were a critical aspect of England’s attacking plan.

Almost every time England had prolonged sequences of possession in Russia’s half of the field, Walker—who again, is a defender—could be found as far up the field as England’s lone striker Harry Kane. Adam Lallana, the ring winger by starting position in England’s 11, would concede his position to Walker. Lallana was typically positioned to the right of Kane, but alternated between roaming the attacking midfield area or occupying a center back in between Walker and Kane. Lallana is not an out and out winger, but is very flexible in terms of positioning. He is very comfortable playing between the opposition’s midfield and defensive line as well as playing in a makeshift second striker role. With Walker still serving as an outlet out wide, Lallana was able to find pockets of space between Delle Alli,  Kane, and Walker. The most consistent source of danger for England throughout this game, but primarily in the first half, was when Walker found space in this wide position. Russia wasn’t prepared to contain such an advanced fullback.

Defensively, England adapted to Walker’s advanced average position. The starting right-center back, Gary Cahill, was often found in the right back’s starting position. The opposite center back, Chris Smalling, was found in the middle of the defense. Danny Rose, the starting left back, stayed in a standard defensive position for any left back. Thus, when England had possession, they were playing with a 3 man defense set behind Eric Dier; Dier moved forward very sparingly, but happened to open the scoring in this game with a well taken free kick in the second half. With 4 players dedicated to defensive-oriented positions, England dealt with Russian attacks in open play fairly easily. Of course whenever necessary, Walker would rejoin the defense in a matter of seconds.

Over the course of the latest Premier League season Walker’s Tottenham Spurs squad was maligned for their inability to hold onto 1 goal leads in games they should win. Often times, Tottenham’s desire to score and move forward with their attacking threats would inevitably lead to a poor goal conceded on the other end. After England took the lead in the 73rd minute Walker’s most-common position reverted back to that of a standard right back: England held 4 defenders at the back, and subbed in Jack Wilshire for Wayne Rooney to seemingly close the game out. In a Spurs uniform Walker might continue attacking all game; but tonight his forward runs were finished. Unfortunately, the “Spursy” equalizer still arrived off of an injury time goal that can only be described as extremely soft. Walker was not at fault for this goal.

Kyle Walker was my man of the match in this game. He found the ball in dangerous positions all night, made quick decisions with the ball, and made very few if any defensive mistakes. Average finishing, questionable final through balls, and some good old fashion bad luck hindered England’s ability to score from open play. If England wants to compete for a trophy in this tournament, their final third quality must improve. But if Kyle Walker plays with the quality he showed tonight, England’s failures won’t be placed on the shoulders of their speedy right back.

But whatever, it’s all BS anyway

Aside: Other tactical trends/things I noticed but chose not to discuss included: Rooney’s deep lying position between Dier and Alli; England’s early focus to play into Kane as a lone, disconnected striker playing along Russia’s backline; Sterling’s extremely weak second half; Hodgson’s decision to bring on Wilshire over James Milner or Jordan Henderson; Dier’s position as basically a third center back; and Lallana’s free roaming within the contained area between Kane, Alli, and Walker (I mentioned this but just barely).

I am currently studying computer science at USC but hail from the great Houston, Texas. Follow me on twitter @therealschoen

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