Analysis: What England can learn from Ukraine vs Sweden
After a slow start, Ukraine's victory over Sweden was one of the most exciting games of the tournament so far. But what can England learn about the tactics of these two teams, ahead of the games on Friday and Tuesday? Well, frankly, quite a lot.
Both sides clearly laid down their tactical models for the tournament, and with the help of FourFourTwo's free Euro 2012 Stats Zone app, we can learn a lot about the threats Roy Hodgson's England team need to be wary of.
One particularly good aspect of Ukraine's play, which appeared to take pundits by surprise, was the accuracy and fluidity of their passing, dictating play with neat interchanges of short passes. A high 80% pass success rate only tells half the story: a large portion of the misplaced passes were longer, more ambitious ones.
Their willingness to play a short passing game was centred largely around the excellent Tymoshchuk, who dictated the tempo from central midfield. He showed more dominance in this area than any England player was able to show against France, as shown by the contrast in the 'player influence' screen grabs below.
Conclusion: England must be wary of this threat. If they are unable to take control of the game in the centre of the park, Tymoshcuk Ã¢ÂÂ and Ukraine Ã¢ÂÂ will.
Ukraine's most obvious tactic was their reliance on width, namely the highly-rated 22-year-old wingers Yevhen Konolyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko. The technical assurance of both players was competent, and at times excellent; both ended gained an assist.
Ukraine's short passing game, controlled by Tymoshcuk, relies on using the width of the pitch when approaching the opposition area, as highlighted by the diagram below. This tactic was particularly prominent on the counter-attack Ã¢ÂÂ something far more likely to be utilised against stronger opposition, which England would hope to be.
As Ukraine employ inverted wingers, this tactic will not necessarily expose England's full backs: the infrequency of crosses delivered from the byline is testament to this. The real concern with the Ukrainian wingers is their ability to switch the play with incisive cross-field passes, changing the focal point of their attacks with speed.
For Sweden, this was a significant problem: they spent the entire match shifting their defensive lines of four across the pitch to offer as much support to the wing as possible, presumably in an awareness of the threat from either Konolyanka or Yarmolenko cutting inside. Consequently, Ukraine's quick shifts in momentum exposed large empty spaces on the flanks; Sweden could not move their defence back across quickly enough. The diagrams below show how many times the ball was moved quickly from one flank to the other: the red arrows are usually failed verticals rather than lateral switches.
Conclusion: England must be wary of making the same mistake as Sweden. They must be disciplined and keep their defensive positioning under control, denying Ukraine the opportunity to pull them around. Hodgson's defensive structure should already be drilled in a way that will prevent the undisciplined eagerness of the Swedes.
Ukraine's exploitation of defensive line
The defensive line held by Sweden was perplexing, to say the least. For the first 20 minutes they held a deep line, forcing Ukraine to play in front of them. Their slick passing, and attempts to utilise both wings, were largely futile in the opening stages. Sweden stood off, allowing Ukraine to dominate the possession stats whilst remaining compact and deep.
With Ukraine forced to pass the ball around in front of two organised banks of four, they simply couldn't find any space to exploit. This was exactly the same defensive tactic England employed against France, as indicated in the diagrams below.
Notice how in both diagrams the attacking team makes very few forward passes into the box: they were stifled when it came to the final third. For the first 20 minutes against Ukraine and the full 90 against France, these defences let nothing pass through them by holding a deep, rigid line.
England were particularly good at holding the line, as shown by France's reliance on long range shots and their offside count: nothing got through the defence. Against Ukraine, England should have no problems with this style of defending.
The bizarre thing is, after the first 20 minutes Sweden suddenly pushed their defence up, which allowed Ukraine to play the ball in behind them, via clever runs on the shoulder of the last defender by Shevchenko, receiving delivery from Voronin, who dropped off the defensive line to find space. Note the number of long balls Shevchenko received in dangerous positions.
Conclusion: England must be wary of making Sweden's mistake and pushing the defence up. Ukraine's tactics are nullified by a deep defensive line Ã¢ÂÂ a method Hodgson's England side already seem comfortable with employing. They mustn't press too high up the pitch, or they risk exposure to Shevchenko's intelligent runs.
The final point to make on Ukraine is their poor aerial ability. Their long forward passing was completely ineffective against the strength and height of Olof Mellberg & Co. The diagrams below tell us that their direct forward passes were almost always intercepted, and that they won the minority of any aerial challenges.
Conclusion: England's defenders should have no trouble clearing up any desperate attempts at direct passing by Ukraine.
Sweden's defensive line evolved catastrophically from a deep line to a high line. Whether this was a deliberate tactical decision or an ill-advised growth in confidence from the Swedes is up for debate, but either way, England can learn from the successes and failures of both styles of defending.
If the Swedes sit as high as they did for the majority of their opening game, England can hope for the same joy Shevchenko and Voronin found in running behind the defence. Just as Voronin dropped off into space and provided passes through the defence for Shevchenko, so too can Young find space for Welbeck to run the channels.
The diagrams below show the partial success England had in employing this against France: playing more in the No.10 role, Young received direct passes to feet in the centre of the park (in front of the defenders), while Welbeck looked to get in behind and receive passes in dangerous positions.
Against stronger opposition such as England however, Sweden are far more likely to learn from their mistakes and use the same tactic that was so efficient in the opening 20 minutes.
Conclusion: If Sweden remain cautious and organised, England will need to play on the front foot, taking the game to them and dictating the tempo a lot more effectively than they have in previous Hodgson matches. Fluidity of passing and a high defensive line will be a must for England, if they are to break past a deep-lying defensive unit.
Unfortunately for England, a higher defensive line will be favourable to the direct, long ball approach of the Swedes. The diagrams below show the frequency with which Sweden play long diagonal passes to their left flank, utilising the strength and long passes control of Toivonen. Note that the winger successfully received every diagonal ball played to him, and that, consequently, Sweden's success rate was far higher on the left flank than the right.
Conclusion: This is the major threat that England need to be wary of, exacerbated by the potential susceptibility of England's full-backs. When taking on Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson, France were successful 50% of the time; Sweden's direct route to the full-back positions could expose any England weakness Ã¢ÂÂ especially if they target Toivonen on Johnson and John Terry, playing on his less favoured right-sided central defensive berth, gets pulled out of position.
Newly redeployed by Sweden in the classic No.10 position, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the focal point of every Sweden attack: against Ukraine he created more chances than any other player, and nobody had more shots.
His strength can be frightening, often finding space just in front of the opposition defence and holding up the ball before bringing others into play. Note how infrequently he receives direct passes in dangerous positions: for Sweden, he is the creator, receiving passes with his back to goal and dictating the tempo of an attack.
Conclusion: England can overwhelm Sweden simply by nullifying his threat. Parker may need to sit tight on Ibrahimovic for the duration, preventing him from creating the space he needs. Tight marking is a must; Parker is at his best when harassing opposition attackers, and this is what he will need to do to Ibrahimovic, again and again.
In short, against Sweden England have little to fear if they stifle Ibrahimovic and are willing to take the game to the opponents. Against Ukraine, however, England will need to be far more cautious. Their neat passing and intelligent forward play against Sweden took everyone by surprise. If England remain cautious during Ukrainian attacks, there is no reason why England cannot collect three points from the hosts.