In the days since England’s shock loss to Iceland, like many fans I have asked numerous questions in the search for answers to what will now go down as one of the Euros’ biggest upsets.
But principal amongst these was this: why were we so poorly prepared for their not-so-secret weapon – the deadly long throw of Aron Gunnarsson – which directly contributed to their first goal?
The easy scapegoat to point the finger at is England full-back Kyle Walker, and of course it is difficult to absolve him of at least some of the blame. However, and more worryingly, is that we conceded in a manner that seemed bereft of any proper preparation, despite Iceland running an easily recognisable routine successfully at least twice before in the group stages.
The below is a GIF and screengrab of a chance in their game against Hungary; in it, the Hungarian defence have the benefit of the throw being from closer to the byline, presenting less of an angle to exploit, but it still produces a chance arguably nearer than England ever came on Monday.
In this routine, the throw is aimed at a spot just inside the top corner of the box, around ten yards in, for a player running on to head the ball. Most often, and in this scenario, it is towards the hulking frame of Kari Arnason, circled in red in the image. His sole job is to flick this ball onwards towards the back post, around the six yard line; a challenge made far easier to win by his momentum running on to the ball, as opposed to his tracking defender who ideally has to head away from and against his momentum.
This could be nullified by a defender starting in the space between the red and the green circles, who can attack this ball or sit as needed. However, Iceland will often use a forward – here Kolbeinn Sigthorsson – to make a dummy run towards the thrower. This draws away not only his marker behind him but also the second defender in the green circle, who in theory could and should be occupying the red/green gap but instead moves to cut off any throw to feet, or make winning the header more difficult for the forward.
Behind them, and anticipating the flick, Iceland then crash around two or three runners into the area around the blue circle. In my opinion, one of Iceland’s underrated strengths has been their ability to make clever runs which require defences to either switch markers – dangerous and difficult in a congested box – or almost fall to basketball-style picks, freeing space for the attackers. Here however, even this is not needed, as the centre-back is caught ball-watching and all Jon Dadi Bodvarsson has to do is drift in behind him, unfortunately heading narrowly over.
Fast forward to the Austria game, and Iceland’s first goal.
Again, we see the exact same setup; Arnason getting a run in the red circled area, Sigthorsson drawing away two players to the green circled area (you can actually see him doing this at the start of the GIF), and players crashing into the blue circled area for the flick. But here, the two Iceland attackers in the blue circle cross runs, and in handing off the man, the defender is again caught ball-watching. This time Bodvarsson steals ahead unmarked, and does well to control and scramble a finish past Robert Almer.
Yet despite this, England seeminly not only failed to prepare, but in fact made the situation worse; essentially presenting the goal to Iceland on a plate.
The setup is the same; red circle runner, green circle dummy run, blue circle back-post crashers. But rather than put the 6’2 Dier on the 6’3 Arnason man-to-man, England instead put the 5’10’ Rooney on him, giving away five inches. This would not even be as bad if Dier was in a position to attack the ball, but instead he stays deep. If he stands 5 yards up at the intersection of pitch stripes, he can put in an aerial challenge when Arnason escapes Rooney, and indeed he does make an attempt – but he is too deep to make it in time.
The reason for this is presumably that England may have wanted to defend that area just outside the six yard box – disregarding that Iceland have not been aiming for this, and Joe Hart should be dominating there anyway. But if we assume this was their aim, a simple personnel realignment could have still enabled England to do both; defend the six-yard line, and better match up.
Sterling is defending a short throw, despite no Icelandic player within 10 yards of the throw, and with a man renowned for long throws having just run cross-field to obviously wind one up. Rose is standing in no-man’s land, again defending a throw that is never coming. Put Rose on the toes of the decoy man Sigthorsson, and you can keep guarding against one of Iceland’s other routines, throwing in to him. Drop Sterling back to where Rose is if you want; this is a largely academical exercise. But Rose’s move allows you to push Dier five yards up to challenge the first throw (at which point he could switch places with Rooney to even better match up), and now place Harry Kane (in the green circle) on the 6 yard line if you so want.
This of course only tackles the issue of the first header. Arnason may still win it, and send it onwards, bringing the three defenders at the back post into play – and now, our scrutiny.
Cahill does his job well, sticking close to his man, allowing nothing even if the ball does fall to him. But rather than learn from Hungary and Austria’s example, and have defenders get touch-tight on the tricky-running attackers, Alli and Walker give them huge five yard cushions.
Walker is flat-footed, failing to stay goalside and keep Sigurdsson in front of him, and again like his fellow defenders in the group stages gets punished for ball-watching. However, at the back post, Alli is lucky his mistake goes largely unnoticed. Having already bitten on the inside fake, Birkir Bjarnason cuts in behind him, and even if Sigurdsson does not make it has a good chance of getting a foot in himself.
This ultimately was for me one of the most frustrating things about England; conceding an equaliser so soon after a bright start, due to simple poor preparation. With panic setting in after this tumultuous start, we never looked comfortable, and ultimately were simply outfought, out-thought and outplayed by an excellently drilled Icelandic unit.
-Reddit user u/PutARyanDonkOnIt