Nisar Khan

President, head writer at TheSportMatrix


What Went Wrong for England against Iceland?

"As the looming possibility of an embarrassing defeat dawned upon the English public, the England players responded by producing one of the most hopeless and uninspiring second half performances of all time."

The 8th and final tie of the knock-out stage took place at the Allianz Riviera Stadium in Nice, where England and Iceland squared off in a winner takes all duel. England qualified for the tie by woefully finishing 2nd to their neighbours Wales while the surprise package of the tournament Iceland finished 2nd in Group F with 5 points, unbeaten and above Cristiano Ronaldo. The following result would send shockwaves throughout the world of football, but despite the shock, many England fans were almost expecting to be disappointed come 90 minutes. Once again England produced an abject performance at a major tournament where the promise and hope conjured during the qualifying stage was emphatically erased. England fell to two quick-fire goals that came after England took the lead through a Wayne Rooney penalty, which was the beginning of the end.

Iceland Tactical Context

"We win on unity and hard work and organisation." 

Co-managers Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson have laid down the foundations of their philosophy on discipline, focus and work ethic, they recognise that what they lack in star quality they make up for in unity. The co-managers have an interesting dynamic as Lagerbäck brings experience and tactical understanding to the table from his nine years as Sweden head coach while Hallgrímsson provides local knowledge in the context of Iceland.

Iceland defending in a narrow 4-4-2.
Iceland counter-attacking in a 4-3-3.
Throughout the qualification rounds and Championships Iceland have adopted a rigid 4-4-2 / 4-4-2 diamond formation, which can switch to a narrow 4-2-3-1 to bulk up the midfield depending on the opponent. The beauty of the 4-4-2 is that tiny adjustments in positioning can change the entire shape of the team. They displayed this in their qualifying match against Turkey, where they often defended in a 4-5-1 with either Sigþórsson or Böðvarsson dropping into midfield to block passing lanes and when they counter attacked it morphed into a 4-3-3 formation with Sigurðsson going wide of the two strikers. While Sigurðsson on paper may be listed as a central midfielder he has been used sparingly on the wing and as a shadow striker at times throughout the past three years. Sigurðsson's partner in the centre, defensive midfielder Gunnarsson holds his position through all phases of play to reduce vulnerability if there is a turnover in play, he is positionally astute and tries to anticipate opposing player's movement and thought processes.  In the rare few times that Iceland hold onto possession in games they heavily rely on their full-backs Sævarsson and Skúlason to stretch the pitch and commit the opposition's full-backs.

England Tactical Context

Throughout the qualifying stages, the public watched as Hodgson experimented and tampered with the England team to find his optimum set up, which many would say he still hasn't. Hodgson has used an array of formations ranging from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 diamond. England have at times lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond but defended in a 4-3-3 with a wide forward (either Ox, Sterling or Walcott) pushing up to the press the opposition, meaning that a quick turnover in play can create an overload in the wide areas.

England attacking in a wide 4-3-3 after winning the ball back.
All through the qualifying rounds, Roy had been spoilt for choice with his attacking options, in what formation and situation can England facilitate Rooney, Vardy, Kane, Sturridge, Ali, Wilshere, Lallana all into the same line-up? Wayne Rooney's starting place has come under question, as England's all-time top scorer has been subject to much criticism about his goal scoring form and ability to perform at the highest level. The match sharpness of Jack Wilshere has also come under question as the midfielder only started one league game for Arsenal this season and the England star looked unfit in England's last outing against Slovakia. Wilshere often played as the holding midfielder during the qualifying stages and turned in performances of the highest quality, receiving six man of the match awards.

England: (4-3-3): Hart, Walker, Cahill, Smalling, Rose, Alli, Dier, Rooney, Sturridge, Sterling, Kane

Iceland: (4-4-2): Halldórsson, Sævarsson, Árnason, Sigurðsson, Skúlason, Guðmundsson, Gunnarsson, Sigurðsson, Bjarnason, Sigþórsson, Böðvarsson.

England lined up in a 4-3-3 with the main talking point being the inclusion of Raheem Sterling, who had underperformed in the group stages, he occupied the left flank. As expected Iceland lined up unchanged in their 4-4-2 formation aiming to pack the midfield and defend in two banks of four.

Iceland's resolute organisation

As stated earlier, Iceland prefer to set up in a rigid 4-4-2, taking football back to basics and allowing for better team cohesion. The team set up to frustrate England by denying them of space to pass in and denying them of time on the ball. All players from the front to the back contributed to the defensive system. As soon as they won the ball back, they would counter quickly and progress through the acres of vacated space left by England's porous midfield 3.

Kane coming deep to receive the ball
The Iceland defence didn't allow the England's front three to breathe, forcing Harry Kane to drop deep as he was isolated from his midfield. Kane coming deep left a void in the no.9 position making life easier for the Iceland CBs. They were more than happy to see England aimlessly pass the ball around in front of them and not in behind them. The team were disciplined and kept their shape up throughout the game, they also managed to find the perfect balance between pressing England and when to hold their position.

Attacking wise Iceland's two strikers Sigþórsson and Böðvarsson provided England's defence with all kinds of trouble on the counter, the two made sure that they positioned themselves in between the respective CBs, as can be seen for the second goal. Martin Keown recently stated on live TV that he believed modern day defenders don't know to defend against two upfront anymore due to their lack of experience against the formation. Iceland playing two upfront meant they could assign each striker to occupy a CB of their choice thus allowing the wide midfielders to expose space left by Walker & Rose, creating a 3v2 or 4v2 situation. Guðmundsson and Bjarnason got forward quickly on the wings and overloaded the England defence who didn't know whether to go man-to-man with the Iceland attackers or defend the space instead.

Iceland's front two positioned in between England's CBs.

1st half: England's lack of cohesive play

England struggled to manoeuvre the ball around Iceland's rigid structure. Iceland blocked off the passing lanes to the England's forwards forcing Kane to come deep and Sturridge & Sterling to move in centrally. Roy's cry for width before the game to stretch the Icelandic defence was in vain as the forwards were forced out of their positions, while Walker and Rose only rarely found themselves in behind Iceland's full-backs. Iceland relished the fact that England's wingers were not able to have one-on-one moments with their full-backs and were comfortable in watching play take place in front of them.

Sturridge forced to drift in centrally
The few times Iceland ventured forward they did so with relative ease due to Dier's inability to hold by himself. The Tottenham Hotspur defensive mid plays in a pivot for his club with either Dembele or Mason next to him, who constantly cover his inconsistent positioning, but in this game he played in a midfield 3 with Alli and Rooney, who both refused come deep to aid Dier defensively. The two were also far too advanced for Dier to pass to thus too far for them to cover for him.

Distance between Dier and his midfield partners.
One of Iceland's key offensive weapons is their use of throw-ins with midfielder Gunnarsson possessing a Rory Delap-type throw that he has used to cause havoc in defences several times already in the competition. England should have been aware of this but failed at the first hurdle, as poor marking from Iceland's first throw in led to their equaliser, Rooney lost out in the first aerial duel, and Walker lost his man for the second ball. Why on earth was Wayne Rooney marking one of Iceland's tallest players? Clueless.

The only ways to break down a deep-lying low block defence is to either increase the tempo of passing to try and draw the defenders out of their rigid positioning or be more incisive and direct through running at the defence or using route one tactics. England did neither. Sterling was the only player who showed glimpses of penetration and made a few runs in behind, one leading to England's penalty.

2nd half: Clueless England on the ball, caved under pressure?

As the looming possibility of an embarrassing defeat dawned upon the English public, the England players responded by producing one of the most hopeless and uninspiring second half performances of all time. The England players laboured around the pitch with no sense of direction and no sense of urgency. Their tempo of passing was slow, dejected and painful to watch as you could see the cogs slowly turning in the player's minds as they struggled to find gaps in the Iceland defence. There was no structure to their attacks, no fluidity, no innovation and minimal tactical awareness.

The established Premier League stars all of a sudden became incapable of controlling the ball and could not cohesively put together a string of passes. Even with the introduction of Jack Wilshere at half time for Eric Dier, the needed penetration and incisive play still did not follow. They had aimless possession across the back four best shown by the fact that Gary Cahill had the highest pass completion rate of the team with 92%.

Image: Telegraph.
As the half proceeded, desperation sunk in and Roy reverted to his common tactic of throwing all his strikers onto the pitch and hoping for some kind of attacking magic. Kane, Vardy, Sturridge & Rashford were all on at the same time, and it was only Rashford who showed any promise in short glimpses. Why play all these attacking options with no creative player to supply them and no, Rooney in midfield is not the answer. It's also hard to comprehend why Hodgson continued to play his attackers in positions they're not used to or willing to play, Sturridge voiced his displeasure several times when at Chelsea about being played out wide. Why stifle the effectiveness of a player to accommodate the poor form of another?

Hodgson persisted with the 4-3-3 even when he brought on Vardy for Sterling where many thought he would switch to the diamond but for some reason he stuck the Leicester City striker on the wing where he looked uncomfortable and contributed to England's ineffectiveness. The game ended with England effectively playing 3-2-5 with Cahill joining the front 4, England looked desperate and lacked ideas while Iceland finished the game in a comfortable fashion.

Concluding Thoughts

Taking nothing away from Iceland, but on paper, this was meant to be a mismatch with the calibre of individuals England possessed. Iceland have reinforced the narrative that football is a team game and the overall system overrides individual ability. Atletico and Leicester also showed that the overall defensive unit of the team can hide flaws of individual players, co-operation is the key. Iceland as a team are organised, united and have a wide variety of contributing goal scorers.

Image: Sports - Inquirer
The question on everyone's lips is where do England go from here? Every single time the national team enters a tournament we manage to convince ourselves that this time will be different and that we have more 'potential' and 'quality' than before. This rollercoaster is never ending, and I don't know about you, but I want to get off. Our approach to football must evolve to ensure we don't fall any further behind our European counterparts. A clear revamp of the entire grassroots system is needed, new coaching techniques must be applied and a new mentality to be instilled into the youth of today.

Follow Mathaeus Abuwa on Twitter | @Mathaeus__


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TheSportMatrix | We Live For Sport: What Went Wrong for England against Iceland?
What Went Wrong for England against Iceland?
England failed again. What went wrong?
TheSportMatrix | We Live For Sport
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