Where England can exploit Iceland’s weaknesses at Euro 2016 | Michael Cox

Roy Hodgson has spent his career building sides like Iceland, who were the only team to reach the knockout stage at Euro 2016 without a clean sheet

Roy Hodgson has been full of praise for Iceland in the knowledge their defensive organisation follows many principles the England manager admires.

Iceland’s joint-manager Lars Lagerback has spoken warmly about the influence of Hodgson in his home country, Sweden. At Halmstad in the 1970s, Hodgson introduced training methods that concentrated heavily on zonal defending in a 4-4-2 system, inspiring many Swedish coaches. Lagerback has successfully introduced those ideas to the Icelandic national team and Hodgson’s primary tactical task is to find weaknesses in the type of defence he greatly admires.

Hodgson has dismissed the idea England are taking Iceland lightly, and the Group F runners-up have certainly been scouted thoroughly. “We sent five people to Paris to watch Iceland play Austria, including Gary Neville and Dave Watson plus our video scout, Andy Scoulding,” Hodgson said. Their main job, rather than assessing Iceland’s attacking threat, will have been finding defensive weaknesses to help England turn their dominance into clearcut chances.

Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge wasted chances in the goalless draw against Slovakia but England were also guilty of not creating enough.

England have been frustrated by opponents playing extremely deeply at Euro 2016, and Iceland will provide another of these challenges. However, while they will concentrate on preventing England from finding space in behind, they are not a particularly impressive side defensively. They are the only team to have reached the knockout stage without keeping a clean sheet and Hannes Halldorsson made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the group stage.

Iceland’s greatest strength is the familiarity between players. The joint-managers, Lagerback and Heimer Hallgrimsson, used only 16 starters in the entire two-year qualification process for Euro 2016, and have named the same starting XI in all three matches at the tournament. It is in stark contrast to Roy Hodgson’s decision to rotate his side heavily for the third group game – even if England were in a slightly different position – and there will be no surprises on the Iceland teamsheet.

They will make no attempt to dominate possession in Nice. They have averaged 35% across their three group matches and a somewhat rudimentary attacking approach is underlined by the fact their most frequent passing combination in each of those games was simple: the goalkeeper Halldorsson launching the ball to the centre-forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Passing moves often end there: Sigthorsson recorded a pass completion rate of only 44%. Iceland’s most notable attacking weapon is the long throw of the central midfielder Aron Gunnarsson and it led to Jon Bodvarsson’s goal against Hungary. Otherwise, they will play on the counterattack.

England have impressed when attacking down the right and they may trouble Iceland there.
England have impressed when attacking down the right and they may trouble Iceland there. Illustration: Guardian

Iceland sit deep in a 4-4-2 system – although they are surprisingly uncomfortable at defending crosses for a side who inevitably depend on aerial clearances. The defence play wider than you would expect, with the full-backs dragged out towards the flanks easily, without cover from a central defender or midfielder. This creates gaps in the channels for runners to exploit and Iceland’s first two concessions, against Portugal and Hungary, were remarkably similar: the left-back, Ari Skulason, was beaten by a quick-passing combination, allowing the right-winger to attack behind him and play a crucial low cutback into the box.

England’s right flank has been their most productive area at Euro 2016, with Kyle Walker arguably the tournament’s outstanding right-back and Nathaniel Clyne deputising well against Slovakia. Hodgson seems set to deploy Daniel Sturridge from the right of a front three, allowing the Liverpool striker to cut inside into goalscoring positions. It means Walker must overlap regularly to provide right-sided width. England should not leave him isolated on that flank and Dele Alli’s forward running from a right-of-centre midfield position could allow England to overload Iceland’s left-back zone.

Hodgson has spent most of his career creating sides who play exactly like Iceland, and he is fully capable of finding weaknesses in their system and instructing his players to attack those zones.

There is much to admire about Iceland but also clear weaknesses England must exploit.


Michael Cox

The GuardianTramp

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