England managed to defend better than the Italians in their recent encounter, but Cris Freddi doesn't think this approach is new

Judging from some of the press reaction, here and in Italy, to England’s tactics in Rome, you’d think some kind of genuine sea change had taken place. The Italians seemed almost dumbstruck that an England team could play that way, so defensively, like an Italian team. But it’s been happening, on and off, for over thirty years. Does the name Ramsey mean anything to them?

Sir Alf first experimented with a more defensive line-up back in the winter of 1965. A full-back in his playing days, he knew the value of wingers, and picked them for most of his first thirty matches in charge. Then, on a freezing night in Madrid, he set out to flood the midfield and use the full-backs and Alan Ball to go wide. The Spanish defence, including the stylish Manuel Sanchis making his debut, didn’t know who to mark, Mooro was forever up in the opposition penalty area, England won 2-0, a scoreline that flattered the hosts. Their manager, Jose Villalonga, was unstinting in his praise: “They were phenomenal. Far superior in their experiment and in their players.”

The same kind of formation won the World Cup later in the season, but it didn’t take long for the phrase Wingless Wonders to mean something altogether different, never more so than when Ramsey had a complete brainstorm in 1972. Needing to somehow overturn a 3-1 deficit against Beckenbauer & Co in Berlin, he used Hunter & Storey in midfield to autograph Netzer’s legs. England emerged with a useless 0-0 draw. Worse, if anything, was his decision to pick an extra defensive midfielder against Poland the following year, the appalling Storey in place of Mick Channon. England’s 2-0 defeat started them on the way out of the World Cup.

Ramsey’s successor Don Revie once used what Kevin Keegan called six back-four men v Holland in 1977, against a team who hadn’t played with a centre- forward for years. The Dutch won 2-0 without breaking sweat.

Alright, but these are defensive midfields we’re talking about (ditto Bobby Robson’s in the 1986 World Cup) – and what the Italians are saying is they were surprised at the mass of England bodies at the back. Well it was hardly a first of that kind, either, and the Italian press and management might have been aware of it: England used a packed defence in Italia 90.

It’s referred to as a sweeper system now, but it’s not something Kaiser Franz would have wanted to claim credit for. Robson simply picked two full-backs and three central defenders: Terry Butcher, Des Walker, Mark Wright – plus a holding player in midfield. Effective enough for a place in the semis, but not exactly something from Damascus Avenue. In Rome this month, Hoddle used a different set of defensive players, but there were no more of them (six) than in 1990. Hardly the stuff of eurekas.

Maldini’s Italy really didn’t seem to have learned anything from (fairly) recent matches between the two countries. In 1973 they achieved their first-ever wins against England, home and away, without conceding a goal, by stacking their defence and letting Ramsey’s men pump high balls into it. The other night, a complete reversal, England pulling everyone back, Italy aiming for the head of Vieri. And this from a coach who was Milan’s captain and sweeper when they won the 1963 European Cup. Weird.

So the massed defence tends to win more often than it doesn’t – but don’t tell Graham Taylor that. The crown jewel of his many selectorial gems was probably the collection he sent out for a World Cup qualifier against Norway in Oslo in June 1993, including three centre-backs and only one full-back, just to counter the height of Jostein Flo. “A pig’s arse of a team,” Taylor called it, and no-one violently disagreed. Yet another 2-0 defeat.

Even so, the safety-first approach generally works for England (even for Taylor, whose midfields without a single playmaker qualified for the 1992 European finals) – so if Glennda needs it in France, expect him to go for it without hesitation. The only surprise will be if anyone’s surprised. 

From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month

Related articles

How To Be A Footballer by Peter Crouch
Ebury Press, £20Reviewed by Huw RichardsFrom WSC 382, January 2019Buy the book Peter Crouch’s long career has been full of pleasant surprises,...
Bobby Robson film offers smiles, tears and plenty of fond memories
Embed from Getty Imageswindow.gie=window.gie||function(c){(gie.q=gie.q||[]).push(c)};gie(function(){gie.widgets.load({id:'GdQWiwV1TDZJXHQHOT_D6A',sig...
Graham Taylor: In his own words
Peloton Publishing, £18.99Reviewed by David HarrisonFrom WSC 375, April 2018Buy the book The untimely loss of Graham Taylor in January 2017...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday