England vs. Montenegro: Key Battles in Wembley World Cup Qualifier
Roy Hodgson may not have enjoyed the greatest of profiles in the press of late, but his England side are currently perched atop their World Cup qualifying group, a point ahead of their qualification rivals, Ukraine.
However, with Montenegro in third and equal on points with second-place Ukraine, England must be wary of not only dropping points but also being leapfrogged by their visiting opponents on Friday, October 11.
While the match may take place on home soil at Wembley, Hodgson's team cannot afford to treat this game as a fixture weighted toward them by virtue of the venue.
In their away trip to Montenegro back in May, national coach Branko Brnovic posed a number of tactical problems which England's manager failed to answer or even react to at times. That game finished 1-1.
This time, with firsthand experience of their opponent's approach, the Brave Falcons will fancy their chances at grabbing a ticket to Brazil 2014 out of England's hands.
Stevan Jovetic and Co. will be extremely motivated and ready to undertake a rigorous examination of just how much progress England have made under Hodgson and how realistic their hopes for the summer are.
With the native press awash with talk of complacency being the biggest danger for Wayne Rooney and Co., it seems that Montenegro have once again been wrongly underrated by those on the home front.
As a consequence, they may yet be able to block the home team's route to Brazil, but where will the main dangers come from and how can England respond and instead put the pressure on their opponents at Wembley?
Below are five key battles Hodgson's men must win to ensure their hopes of securing safe passage to Brazil are not irrecoverably dented before the final game in Group H.
1. Protect Joe Hart, both up close and at range
Joe Hart may still be England's No. 1, but after a number of error-ridden performances for his club of late, the confidence generated by his presence between the sticks has diminished slightly.
All is not lost, however, with the goalkeeper's poor form mainly contained to his outings in a Manchester City shirt.
He needs protection, however, from the attacking attentions of Jovetic, who will look to test Hart as much as possible. Having joined City in the summer, the Montenegrin forward may now even have a better idea of the English keeper's foibles.
Preventing Montenegro from succeeding at unsettling the team's goalkeeper will be a team effort, however. England must cut fouls around the box to a minimum, quickly close down opponents in the middle of the pitch and ensure their defensive line is fully switched on and organised at all times.
While that all sounds very obvious, having a top-class and in-form keeper behind your defenders can sometimes make players take their safety net for granted. Hart's club form isn't currently worthy of that, and England would do well to take precautions with an extra focus on defensive preparations ahead of their showdown at Wembley.
2. Coping with one, two, three or more attackers at the back
In the earlier away game against Montenegro in Chisinau, Brnovic at first set his side out with Jovetic as the lone forward in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He soon changed his system into a 4-4-2, bringing Mirko Vucinic into a forward pair.
Later, he tweaked the team again into a 4-3-3 of sorts, adding Dejan Damjanovic into the attacking mix before trying to break the 1-1 deadlock by bringing in striker Andrija Delibasic to make it four at the front.
England's defensive pairing that night were Chris Smalling and Joleon Lescott. With Phil Jagielka in the frame to start against Montenegro at Wembley alongside Gary Cahill or Lescott, Hodgson's central partnership will at least be armed with more experience going into this crunch game.
Although Vucinic looks to be out of the game through injury, his absence will likely only encourage Montenegro's head coach to further shuffle his attacking deck in order to make the most of the quality that is available to him.
With Jovetic preferring to play as a second striker, Korean-based back-up Damjanovic—who scored the equaliser against England in May—could get the nod to start up-front, if only as an initial gambit by Brnovic to test England's defenders.
Jagielka and the rest of the defensive unit, including Leighton Baines and whoever gets the call to play as the right-sided full-back, must keep their wits about them and be prepared to face the unexpected at home.
Montenegro may be one of the smallest countries to ever challenge for a World Cup berth, but their tiny size belies their footballing sophistication and boldness of approach, especially when under pressure.
Yet if Damjanovic proves to be an inadequate stand-in for Vucinic, England must be prepared to act ruthlessly to also shutdown Jovetic, who will be the team's main creator and goal threat.
The visitors cannot be given an inch if England wish to tramp their own narrative down upon the Brazil 2014 fairytale of a county who have only been a member of FIFA for five years reaching the World Cup ahead of them.
3. Seizing the initiative from the visitor's technical area
As evidenced by Brnovic's enthusiasm to change around his attacking set-up mid-game in their previous encounter, Hodgson has his work cut out if he is to deal with the machinations of his opposite number in the visitor's dugout.
In Montenegro, the England manager wasn't slow to react but instead decided that changes were unnecessary, regardless of Brnovic's shifts and adjustments.
That's all well and fine should your team be the masters of their own well-oiled and threatening system, such as Spain or Italy, but England can boast no such master plan. Rather, Hodgson's tactics have often been lamented as archaic and unambitious.
If the England boss is to match and beat Brnovic at Wembley, he must set his team up so that they can control rather than chase the match. That doesn't mean suddenly coming up with an English tiki-taka on the spot, but Hodgson has to do more to allow his players to impose themselves on the game.
Playing away from home, Montenegro's manager may likely respond even more reactively, especially having lost his first-choice striker, Vucinic, to injury.
In their previous match, England were able to dominate the centre of the park when their opponents switched to using two men rather than three in midfield. Hopefully, Hodgson has a plan of how to replicate that supremacy without having to wait for Montenegro to provide it, whether that means packing the midfield to start or asking the likes of Rooney and James Milner to drop deeper.
4. Turning possession into end product
If the ball can be secured, England mustn't dawdle in possession.
Montenegro's key defender, Marko Basa, is likely to miss the game through injury, and so opportunities to put Montenegro's back line under pressure cannot be missed.
Baines' dead-ball delivery and crossing from left-back could be exactly what Hodgson's men need to ensure a quick and effective supply of forward balls to Rooney and Daniel Sturridge.
More must be done from the wings and central midfield, however, especially if Montenegro decide to sit back and play on the counter due to their loss of vital personnel.
Against a side coiled up like a spring, waiting for the perfect transition to strike with Everton's overlapping full-back could blow up in England's face.
Considering the form that Sturridge is in, Rooney or Ross Barkley should start in the hole, knitting play together and hauling the team's momentum forward. As shown by his link-up with Robin van Persie at Manchester United, Rooney is more than capable of being an able provider to a striker partner, even from deep.
Should he play slightly behind the Liverpool striker, the man with the head bandage could be the ideal solution to patching up England's midfield supply line.
5. Supporting England's strike force
Rooney can't do it alone however, and neither can Sturridge.
Even the world's best players need others to act as runners or decoys in order to play at their best.
On a more basic level, nobody plays well or enjoys much luck in front of goal when they're crowded out and isolated from their teammates.
Although they must not play recklessly, England must commit players forward to ensure their attackers have the reinforcements they need to overrun and play through Montenegro's defences.
That may mean that players such as Michael Carrick are required to play a more disciplined role, sitting while Steven Gerrard surges into the final third, or it may mean playing Phil Jones at right-back to help hold the fort and balance the team.
Alternatively, with Sturridge playing as striker and Rooney in the hole, Danny Welbeck could be deployed on the left where his tireless enthusiasm and sound technique could be industrious assets in helping to bring others into play.
Hodgson cannot rely on setting up his team to be hard to beat. England must win against Montenegro in order to maintain control over their own destiny. To do that, he has to think positively and perhaps risk being a little bold.
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