Liverpool's fluid football will propel England
The 2010 World Cup was a disappointing experience from a purely footballing perspective. Despite a cool climate that theoretically encouraged high-tempo, positive football, there were arguably only two sides that played a genuinely proactive game -- Chile, who were technically and aesthetically appealing but were eliminated in the second round, and Spain, the eventual champions.
The inevitable excuse from international managers, when asked why international sides are more cautious than club sides, is the lack of preparation time. Without the benefit of working with a group of players every day over an extended period, they're forced to concentrate upon creating a solid shape and structure, without getting around to work on the attacking moves club sides can formulate.
In this sense, however, Vicente del Bosque's Spain started with an obvious advantage over every other side because of their strong Barcelona connection. It wasn't simply that their players were accustomed to playing together, it was that Barcelona were the best club around -- although they hadn't won the 2010 European Cup, they won it in 2009 and regained it in 2011.
The centre-back partnership of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol had worked excellently at Barca for two years, while their club teammate Sergio Busquets often dropped between them to turn Spain into a 3-4-3 -- the type of advanced tactical shift you rarely witness at international level. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta brought their tiki-taka to the table, while Pedro Rodriguez broke into the side midway through the tournament, offering clever runs and movement to complement David Villa, who had signed for Barca shortly before the group stage. Without Barcelona's success, Spain wouldn't have won the World Cup.
Seeking their first trophy in 48 years, England are attempting to follow Spain's example. Their coach, Roy Hodgson, is renowned for defensive-minded, negative play, which was acceptable at Euro 2012 considering he was appointed a few weeks beforehand, but this summer's World Cup demands more adventurous football, something that doesn't come naturally to the 66-year-old.
Fortunately, like Spain, Hodgson can utilise the template of a successful club side. Liverpool might have floundered in the closing weeks of the Premier League campaign, but Brendan Rodgers' side unquestionably overachieved in the 2013-14 campaign, and the Northern Irishman got the best out of his young talents. Steven Gerrard largely adapted effectively to playing as the primary holding midfielder; Jordan Henderson was transformed into a rampaging, decisive box-to-box midfielder; Raheem Sterling showed incredible maturity, creativity and dribbling ability from a variety of roles; and Daniel Sturridge turned in his first complete top-class season upfront. Great for Liverpool, and potentially great for England.
Sure enough, for England's 1-0 victory over Denmark in March, where Sturridge scored the winner, Hodgson recreated the Liverpool 4-3-3 system, with a fifth Liverpool player, Glen Johnson, in defence. It's somewhat amusing that Hodgson has turned to the Reds for guidance in becoming more adventurous, of course, considering he was sacked from the club in 2011 after a disappointing half-season, where his defensive outlook was highly unpopular.
This was a deliberate attempt to replicate the way Liverpool were playing at the time, even if in the final weeks of the campaign, Rodgers often used a midfield diamond. The perception that Hodgson is obsessed with 4-4-2 is only partly true, and he's made a concerted effort to evolve the system and play a 4-2-3-1 in the qualifiers. That system is a mere evolution of a 4-4-2, though, because it still defends with two banks of four.
Using a 4-3-3 is entirely different, and Hodgson went out of his way to change the structure of the side and make the Liverpool players comfortable. Indeed, the biggest problem was fitting Sturridge and Wayne Rooney into the 4-3-3 -- both had spells out on the flank against Denmark, where neither were happy. The 4-2-3-1 would actually make much more sense in this respect, but that's the extent Hodgson wanted to experiment with the Liverpool approach.
"I think it would be good for Roy to see [Gerrard] in that central pivot that we play," Rodgers said shortly before the Denmark friendly. "We don't play with two holders, we play with one and two more attacking players. Even in that role, he has amazed me at the quality he is playing at." It remains to be seen whether Hodgson will persevere with this system at the World Cup itself, and it seems more likely he'll revert to a 4-2-3-1. It makes more sense for Henderson and Gerrard to be fielded as a duo, partly because Gerrard will encounter genuinely top-class players and might need defensive support. Although his distribution from that deep position was superb, he did have some defensive problems against top-class number 10s: both Adam Lallana and David Silva got the better of him, which wasn't discussed extensively because Liverpool won both those matches, while the slip for Demba Ba's crucial goal might dissuade Gerrard from dropping too deep. He also picked up too many bookings.
Still, it's not entirely about the shape and structure of the side -- after all, while Barcelona were committed to a 4-3-3 under Pep Guardiola, Del Bosque used the same players in more of a 4-2-3-1. Xavi was at the top of the midfield triangle rather than close to Sergio Busquets, while Iniesta was out on the flank, rather than in the centre. There was still understanding and cohesion between the players, and Liverpool's habit of playing at tremendous pace certainly transfers nicely to Hodgson's favoured attacking style -- direct rather than patient.
There are notable off-field comparisons between Barcelona and Liverpool, too, in particular the scepticism from the supporters toward the national side, fuelled by a historic suspicion that, politically, their city was ignored by the country as the whole, and particularly by the capital city. Many Catalans have historically not supported Spain, many Liverpool fans find England an unwelcome distraction.
On the pitch, just as Spain in 2010 lacked Barcelona's primary attacking weapon, Argentine forward Lionel Messi, England can't count upon Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan was the Premier League's star performer this season, and while Wayne Rooney shares Suarez's power and goalscoring ability, he's been disappointing at international tournaments after his brilliant initial impact at Euro 2004.
Of course, England face Uruguay in the group stage, with Suarez unquestionably the main danger. "It would be a big mistake to get hung up on any individual player," Hodgson said this week. "There's not really any way of preparing to face someone like Suarez. ... He's an exceptional player and he's had a wonderful season. But he won't have the same players around him with Uruguay that he has at Liverpool. So, who knows, he might be less effective for Uruguay than he is for Liverpool."
To qualify for the second round, England need Suarez to flop and his club teammates to shine.