The Good, the Bad and the Opposition: Observations from England’s 4-0 home win over Iceland in UEFA Nations League A Group 2
England 4-0 Iceland
UEFA Nations League A
November 18th, 2020
Wembley Stadium, London
By Stewart Flaherty (@stewartflaherty)
England rounded out their UEFA Nations League A campaign with a comfortable 4-0 home win over Iceland. Declan Rice opened the scoring with a header from Phil Foden’s free kick before Mason Mount doubled the England lead with a neat finish. Foden rounded out the scoring with a second half brace to seal a comfortable win for Gareth Southgate’s team.
The result rounds out a disappointing overall campaign for England who will finish third in Group 2 while last placed Iceland finish pointless and will be relegated to UEFA Nations League B. Elsewhere in Group 2, Belgium sealed qualification to the semi final stage by topping the group courtesy of a 4-2 home win over Denmark to take pole position.
You can find a full detailed match report on the BBC website here.
PHIL FODEN ARRIVES ON THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE
In just his third cap, Manchester City star produced a stunning performance that will see him back in Southgate’s plans after a less than ideal start to his international career. After making his debut in England’s sputtering 1-0 win at Iceland to open Group 2 play, the young midfielder missed the next game when he was sent home by Southgate for breaching team COVID protocol.
Foden was reintroduced into the fold by Southgate four games later with a bench cameo during a 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland, and responded to being handed a start here by being England’s most potent attacking force on the night. Lacking the pace and penetrative threat of his club teammate Raheem Sterling, Foden instead used clever movement into spaces between the lines to pick up possession and drive the attack.
Foden showed excellent ability to keep possession in tight spaces, penetrate off the dribble, find dangerous passes in the final third and capped his performance with two second half goals. The young Manchester City starlet is one of many gifted attacking players putting pressure on Southgate for a starting place at next summer’s European championship tournament.
HARRY MAGUIRE QUALITY ON THE BALL
Manchester United captain Maguire is riding out a tough time of late, with the much discussed incident in Greece still looming over his head and a red card in the 1-0 home defeat to Denmark last month. Maguire repaid Southgate for sticking by him with a goal against the Republic of Ireland last week, and followed that up with another strong performance here.
The powerful defender anchored England to their 8th clean sheet in the last 11 games played, and also showed quality on the ball, playing line breaking passes as well as carrying the ball into higher areas and adopting high positions to provide numeric overloads.
DOMINANCE OF POSSESSION COMBINED WITH END PRODUCT
This campaign overall has been a disappointing one for Southgate and England, finishing third is not good enough on a results level and the 3-4-3 shape adopted has often looked poor. On the attacking end, the fluid movement of possession through the thirds has been stagnant as illustrated in the games at Iceland and Denmark. The front three has also struggled to be as threatening as they were in Euro 2020 qualification in a different shape, as underlined by the Three Lions having scored only 3 goals in their 5 UEFA Nations League A games coming into this fixture.
In addition, it has been questioned many times whether the shape allows England to incorporate their best players in the most effective roles. Would Grealish function best as an attacking central midfield player in front of a base formed by Jordan Henderson and Rice? Would Trent Alexander-Arnold be most effective as an overlapping right back in a back four with winger Raheem Sterling in front?
For one game however, we saw a picture of how Southgate wants this shape and team to look. The game showcased defenders coming forward with the ball to overload opposition midfielders, wingers picking up the ball in different areas between the lines, a dominance of possession and the ability to convert that into goals at the sharp end of the field. England amassed 77% possession, 24 shots and xG of 3.38 over the course of the game, a glaring contrast from the 9 shots and 1.37 xG recorded in the 1-0 win at Iceland to start this campaign.
An impressive phase of play that showcased England’s dominance came in the 80th minute when a 17 pass move was capped by Foden firing the Three Lions into a 3-0 lead.
Another improvement for England was the dynamic movement of attacking players when striker Harry Kane dropped deep. During the 0-0 draw in Denmark earlier in this tournament, Kane picked up possession deep with few options in front. In this game, the wingers and wide midfielders showed great improvement in coming central to occupy center backs in these situations, and also providing options in behind.
The exciting performance and two goal salvo from Foden added him to a list of attacking players such as Grealish, Sterling, Mount, Kane, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho who will all be fighting to find their way into the starting lineup when England face Croatia to open the Euros on June 13th.
THIRD PLACE FINISH
There is no avoiding the fact that this is Southgate’s most disappointing sequence of results since being installed as manager in 2016. A World Cup semi final appearance in his first tournament was followed by topping a UEFA Nations League group that included Croatia and Spain before an extra time defeat to Netherlands at the semi final stage of this competition.
To finish 3rd in a 4 team group behind first placed Belgium and also Denmark has drawn heavy criticism from the fan base. In addition, England have been held scoreless in 3 of their 6 games in this campaign including the loss at home to Denmark. The current situation has put pressure on Southgate to have the team competing in the later stages of Euro 2020 when the tournament finally rolls around if he is to remain in charge of the team.
GOAL OUTPUT DROPPING SHARPLY
The qualification campaign for Euro 2020 saw England sweep all before them, sealing their spot in the tournament on the back of a prolific goal scoring attack. In their 8 qualification games, England won 7 and scored 37 goals at a rate of over 4 per game. In this campaign, even a 4 goal explosion on the last day brought the total up to a measly 7 in 6, just over a goal a game.
With largely similar personnel, trouble finding their attacking form within a 3-4-3 shape has been cited by many as a reason for the attacking numbers dropping off so drastically. It is not debatable that Kane, Sterling, Rashford, Grealish, Sancho, Foden and Mount and players capable of providing goals and assists, so it will be interesting to see whether Southgate will experiment with a different shape when England start their World Cup qualification campaign in late March.
CAPTAIN KANE GOAL DROUGHT
Tottenham star Kane led the charge in qualifying with 12 goals and has flown out of the gate in Premier League play this season, racking up 7 goals and 8 assists to date. During this Nations League campaign, Kane has not scored a single goal despite featuring in all 6 games, starting 5 of them. In contrast, Belgium star striker Romelu Lukaku led Group 2 scoring with 5 goals in 5 games to fire the Red Devils into first place.
Winner of the World Cup Golden Boot in 2018, the return to scoring form of Kane will be a vital factor if Southgate and his men are to have success this coming summer.
THE OPPOSITION – ICELAND
DEFENSIVE GAME PLAN OUT OF THE WINDOW
After making England fight every inch of the way during the group opener in Reykjavik, where an injury time penalty from Sterling saw England scrape home. Manager Erik Hamren set out to give England a similar long night here, with a defensively oriented 5-3-2 shape that saw three center backs deal with Kane while wingbacks Ari Skulason and Birkir Saevarsson doubled back on wingers Grealish and Foden.
England breaking the deadlock from a set play in the 29th minute courtesy of Rice did not allow the pressure to build as it had in Iceland months earlier, and forced Iceland to commit more bodies forward in search of a goal to get back in the game. Things got worse for Hamren in the 54th minute when Saevarsson was sent off for a second yellow card after hauling down Bukayo Saka on the edge of the penalty area. This allowed for the space between lines that Foden exploited so ruthlessly before adding two goals in the last 10 minutes to pad the scoreline.
RELEGATION TO GROUP B
In the inaugural UEFA Nations League, Iceland lost every game when placed in a group with Belgium and Switzerland. After avoiding relegation due to UEFA reshuffling the format and increasing the number of teams in Group A, Iceland lost every top flight game again and will now drop to Group B after 10 straight defeats in Nations League play.
Group B will see Iceland avoid the traditional powers but still potentially face quality opposition such as Serbia, Norway and Russia. It will be a new challenge for Iceland, and one they will be facing with a number of new faces.
END OF AN ERA
This campaign saw the aging out of what had been a very successful generation for Iceland, one that peaked with the historic 2-1 win that eliminated England from the knockout rounds of Euro 2016.
In the defensive line, four players played in this game that also featured in the famous Euro 2016 victory, but Hannes Halldorsson (36), Kari Arnason (38), Skulason (33) and Saevarsson (36) are all aging and Iceland need to find new blood for the next tournament cycle. Birkir Bjarnason and Kolbein Sigthorsson also played in both games and are aged 30 or older. With Hamren announcing his resignation on the back of this difficult campaign, it will be a lofty task for the next incumbent to restore Iceland to the levels reached in 2016.
The result ends a disappointing campaign on a bright note for England, but will not relieve Southgate of a lot of questions going into the spring’s World Cup qualification campaign on the back of what was a disappointing 3rd place finish and meek goal output.
Iceland will gain the reprieve of dropping to Group B in terms of level competition, but their biggest challenge will be to identify and blood a new core of players in the hope of one day returning to the top tier.
20’ ENG Declan Rice (Phil Foden) 1-0
24’ ENG Mason Mount (Harry Kane) 2-0
80’ ENG Phil Foden (Jadon Sancho) 3-0
84’ ENG Phil Foden (Harry Winks) 4-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
#19 RF Phil Foden (England) – Instrumental performance from the Manchester City starlet who sparked England’s attack, capping a dominant game with an assist and two late goals.
3: F Phil Foden – Man of the Match.
2: CD Harry Maguire – Strong defensive performance from Maguire who was also a key figure in England’s buildup play from the back.
1: CF Harry Kane – Held scoreless for the 6th straight time in this campaign, Kane still managed to play well, dropping deep to link play and also produced a flick to Mount for England’s second goal.
3: CF Albert Gudmundsson – Drove forward the Icelandic attack in some spells working with the limited service the game afforded.
2: CD Kari Arnason – Racked up blocks, tackles and headers to keep the game competitive until Foden’s late brace.
1: LD Ari Skulason – Defended gamely against Foden and showed up on the attacking end down the left flank.
ENG: Pickford, Dier, Maguire, Walker (Mings), Saka, Rice, Mount (Winks), Trippier (Maitland-Niles), Foden, Grealish (Sancho), Kane (Abraham).
ICE: Kristinsson (Halldorsson), Skulason, Hermannsson, Arnason, Ingason, Saevarsson, Palsson, Bjarnason (Johannesson), Sigurjonsson (Eyjolfsson), Bodvarsson (Sigthorsson), Gudmundsson (Thorsteinsson).
Full highlights can be found on the England YouTube channel here.