Two defeats as Euro warm-ups begin.
Macedonia 4-0 England (18 October 2010, Skopje)
Macedonia 5-1 England (19 October 2010, Kumanovo)By Simon Walker
After six months without a competitive match, the England Senior Men’s Futsal squad faced a tough and challenging re-introduction back into the rigours of international Futsal in Macedonia. The England squad last played in April, when they performed strongly and confidently against Turkey and Malta. Those two performances, along with other promising results over the past 18 months, suggested that England had taken a giant stride forward in the world of Futsal, but these two recent performances against Macedonia indicate that Head Coach Pete Sturgess and his men still have more work to do.
The UEFA European Futsal Championship Qualifiers are taking place in January 2011, and these two friendly matches with Macedonia are the start of an intensive period of preparation for the England squad before embarking on an important European campaign. So ultimately the quality of the performance rather than the results are what the England squad were striving for, and there were a number of positives to be taken out of England’s displays but there is also no denying that a degree of concern at the size of the defeats will be felt by Sturgess and the squad.
In both games, England started the brighter with clever incisive passing, good movement and ball retention but in both second halves Macedonia were physically stronger, sharper and fitter with the England team fading badly. It is worth putting into context that the Macedonian players are two months into their Futsal season, whilst the English Futsal season doesn’t start until the end of November; it was therefore not surprising to see the Macedonians physically better prepared for these two matches.
However, it would be disrespectful to the Macedonians to suggest that they won solely on their levels of fitness. The Macedonians are a classy, technical team, that are ruthless in the final third and the quality of their performances emphasised why they are ranked 30 places above England in FIFA’s world rankings. The speed of their movement and the intensity of the pressure wore England down over the course of the two games, and although England were a little rusty, the scorelines somewhat flattered the Macedonians.
Indeed, the first game could’ve, and should’ve, been very different. England dominated the first half, playing at a high tempo and forcing the Macedonian team into mistakes. England created and spurned a number of good opportunities during that first period, most notably when Pete Vallance stole the ball on the half-way line and drove in on the goalkeeper with two English players in support and failed to convert a glorious opportunity. England should conceivably have been leading by two clear goals at half-time and Macedonia would have been highly relieved that the score was still 0-0. Macedonia re-emerged in the second half with a different game plan, deciding to press England high up the pitch and reducing the time and space the England players had on the ball. England struggled to adapt their own tactics to meet these different demands, but still had an outstanding chance early on through Tom Obasi to take the lead as yet another one-on-one chance with the goalkeeper was wasted. England’s fitness began to fade, affecting their decision-making, composure and movement and it appeared that Macedonia sensed the opportunity. James Dalton, the England goalkeeper, made a number of wondrous saves to keep his team in the game; the best of them saw him fly across his goal to miraculously deny an open goal from point-blank range. Dalton’s efforts were not enough, and in the last ten minutes of the game Macedonia capitalised on English mistakes to score four goals.
The second game followed a similar pattern. England dominated possession for the first period, creating a number of good chances and withstanding any Macedonian attack comfortably. England captain Luke Ballinger managed to break the deadlock and give his team the lead they craved after eight minutes following a rapid counter-attack. Several minutes later the Macedonian team responded against the run of play with a well-struck free kick that sailed into the top corner after flying through a poorly assembled English defensive wall. The momentum in the game was finely balanced from this point onwards with both teams creating good chances. Obasi had an outstanding chance to give England the lead following some skilful individual play that took him past his defender and beating the ‘keeper to leave the tightest of angles to slide the ball into the unguarded net only for the post to deny him.
Macedonia played the last five minutes of the first half having conceded five fouls: one further foul would result in an England penalty. England did not manage to draw this sixth foul, and neither did they manage to head into half-time all square, conceding a sloppy goal fifteen seconds before the end of the half. This second Macedonia goal seemed to deflate the England squad, with the players looking flat and off-the-pace as the second period began and Macedonia snatching a well-worked third goal. This awakened the England team, and they valiantly increased their work-rate to stay in the match; but similar to the first game the England player’s energy levels dropped and Macedonia began to dominate with some outstanding passing movements and two more well-worked goals to finish 5-1 winners.
Although the scorelines of both games did not reflect the intensity and flow of the matches, Macedonia were still worthy winners and the quality of their play indicated that England still have some way to go in order to compete regularly at this level. England did not help themselves at certain points in these two matches with some uncharacteristic mistakes, some wasteful finishing and a lack of physical conditioning. The latter will hopefully improve over the next few weeks as The FA National Futsal League season begins and the players begin to look sharper, but the profligacy in front of goal is a significant area that needs to be addressed before the team can hope to rival teams of the quality of Macedonia. Too frequently in recent England matches have the team squandered good scoring opportunities, and at international level, the England players could learn much from the ruthlessness of the Macedonian finishing in the final third of the pitch.
The England squad’s preparation for the European Futsal Championships will see them convene at the start of November for a three day training camp, followed by two home friendly internationals against Andorra at Loughborough University on the 12 and 13 November. These two matches will be incredibly important for the squad’s preparation for the January qualifiers.