Starting safe could help England prevail in Brazil

The group stages at the World Cup finals pose a tactical minefield like no other.
Tactical minefield: Roy HodgsonTactical minefield: Roy Hodgson
Tactical minefield: Roy Hodgson

Just three games decide your fate. There’s no return leg, no home advantage, no away goals, no aggregate scoring, no room for error. It’s simply three 90 minute fixtures, against relatively unknown opposition, with nine points at stake.

So, tactically, how do you approach such a lottery? How do you expose and counteract a kaleidoscope of the most intelligent, itinerant, masterful and pioneering minds in the sport?

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On a domestic front and, indeed, a European front throughout the 2013/14 campaign we’ve been bestowed with evolutionary styles of play, modernised structures, strengthened mentalities and meticulous organisation.

Atletico Madrid’s rigidity and systematic approach brought the club’s first La Liga triumph since 1995/96, Real Madrid secured the Champions League crown with an expeditious, counter-attacking style, Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga title in record-breaking fashion with a relentless, pressing impetus while Manchester City reigned supreme in the Premier League utilising an expansive formation.

But which of the idiosyncratic disciplines should Roy Hodgson implement to give England a fighting chance in Brazil? Many, including former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes, have championed the positive ‘swagger’ of Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool.

However, Hodgson should be more reliant on a conservative, methodical discipline, with tight and fluent banks between the back four and midfield to kick-start the World Cup campaign against Italy on June 14th.

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Chelsea, like Diego Simeone’s Atletico, harked back to the traditional Italian values of the 1960s and ‘70s – the resilience of Catenaccio – made famous by Argentine coach Helenio Herrera of Internazionale.

It was a system tailored to grind out stalemates or narrow margin wins. It’s how Jose Mourinho – though a critically acclaimed tactician - guided his side to 16 points from a possible 18 against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal this term.

In temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius in Manaus, combined with a suffocating atmosphere of 90 per cent humidity, England would be prone to exhaustion and positional vulnerability while becoming completely exposed if opting to set-up expansively.

Like Chelsea and Atletico, Hodgson’s Three Lions need to be remarkably compact in a 4-4-2 formation without the ball and boss periods of transition in play.

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Sitting deep, absorbing the pressure with narrow units, and limiting the opposition to unimaginative, non-penetrative periods of play is how Real Madrid mastered Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League, how Chelsea overcame Liverpool at Anfield and how Atletico picked off Chelsea in Europe in their semi-final second-leg clash at Stamford Bridge.

From there, it’s all about building through the ranks, exercising the transition in to attack while the opposition is over-committed, while facilitating the shape to get men back behind the ball in the case that possession is conceded. Counter-pressing is another option in transition, but the conditions may not cater for such demands.

Should England get the right balance between the mental, physical, tactical and technical – as Clarets boss Sean Dyche often quotes – then they could find success.

Cesare Prandelli, who succeeded Marcelo Lippi after the 2010 World Cup, is likely to line-up 4-4-2 but with a diamond midfield where Andrea Pirlo sits as the playmaker, Danielle De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio play central and Riccardo Montolivo anchors forward pairing Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano.

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Therefore, Hodgson could call on the likes of James Milner, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshire at the expense of Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge.

European sides will have to play it clever in this tournament. No outsider has ever won a World Cup tournament in South America. Uruguay won on home soil in 1930 and in Brazil in 1950, Brazil then won in Chile and Mexico in 1962 and 1970 respectively, while Argentina won the tournament in their own back yard in 1978 and then Mexico in 1986.

Tactics will play a huge part in Brazil, especially when it comes to negating the natives who will be more acclimatised and accustomed to the unbearable heat and humidity.