England vs Romania

Following England’s victory over Tunisia on matchday one, fellow Group G opponents Romania and Colombia would meet at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon.

These sides last met at the World Cup in USA in 1994, at which time the Romanian’s would win 3-1 with goals from Hagi & West Ham United legend Florin Raducioiu.

On this occasion Colombia would still find a place for Asprilla, Rincon and Valderrama, all of whom had played an integral part of the Colombian side for the past 10 years, however as continuity goes Romanian’s golden generation were still in full flow fielding no fewer than five starters from 4 years earlier.

On the stroke of half time Romania would turn to a striker making his world cup debut for his country, Galatasary hit man Adrian Ilie, whose deft chip over Mondragon would give his side the lead in first half stoppage time. Cautious possession and a lack of penetration from Colombia would see the match finish 1-0 to Romania, and would set up their clash with England nicely on matchday two in Toulouse.

Here is how the group stood after the opening round of fixtures.

Matchday Preview

As the 22nd of June 1998 arrived, Glenn Hoddle was forced into a selection change with Gareth Southgate picking up an injury and would in turn be replaced by Manchester United’s Gary Neville. The BBC website would write:

The Aston Villa defender completed a full training session on Sunday but failed to convince England’s management of his ability to last 90 minutes.

He sprained his right ankle on Tuesday while working out with the squad following last Monday’s 2-0 win over Tunisia in the opening game.

Darren Anderton keeps his place in preference to David Beckham, and the rest of the team is unchanged from the one which beat Tunisia.

Adams found the hard pitch against Tunisia in Marseille physically taxing and there is a worry that he might not last the entire game.

‘High technique’

Hoddle, who on Saturday watched Croatia beat Japan in Nantes, said the game against Romania is the toughest in the group.

Romania are a team of high technique, he said. The coach pinpointed midfielder Gheorghe Hagi and Chelsea’s Dan Petrescu for special attention.

Hoddle added: “They are the seeded team and we will have to play as well or better than we did against Tunisia. “Every time we have played them in the last 10 to 15 years it has been a draw and we want to win this time.”

England Starting Line Up

Positionally the only major change from the Tunisia match would be Scholes taking up a more advanced central role. This gave Sheringham and Shearer someone who could attack the box should they peel wide like we saw in the previous match, but during the match we also saw Scholes was man marked by Romania’s Galca so would often rotate with Sheringham in an attempt to break free and to penetrate the space in behind Romania’s back line.

In possession Batty and Ince worked as a double pivot in front of the defensive line, providing angles to build the ball forward but also to stretch Romania through switches of play. This positioning was also to protect the spaces vacated by the aggressive forward runs of Neville and Campbell, something we will illustrate later in the article.

Romania Starting Line Up

Romania Coach Anghel Iordanescu would name an unchanged starting eleven from that of their opening match with Colombia.

In general terms this is a very fluid 3-5-2 system with lots of rotations and intricate build up play. Typically, their preference was to move the ball through the central channels to create shooting opportunities at the top of the box, however the strikers would also pull wide on the ball side to offer width and to attack via a dribble diagonally.

Romania are captained by the legendary figure of Gheorghe Hagi, who at 33 has 111 caps to his name and is still playing an integral role for 97/98 Turkish champions Galatasary. To say Hagi has a free role would be an understatement, freedom of the field would likely be a more apt description such was the fluidity of his movement. Despite his senior years (33 in 1998 almost certainly meant a player was well into the twilight of his career) Hagi would have been considered as a major threat in this game, both from open play and set pieces, given the devilish technique possessed in his left foot.

At the back Romania are anchored by Gheorghe Popescu, who was also starring with Turkish champions Galatasary, but would have been well known to English football fans having spent the 94/95 season with Ossie Ardiles at Tottenham Hotspur. His role was that of a traditional Libero, often found in German teams of the 80s and 90s, starting as a sweeper in the central areas of a back three but often moving into midfield. His ability to pass and carry the ball from the back was a real asset to the team, helping orchestrate attacks as well as breaking up play to begin counter attacks.

Other team members include Dan Petrescu who was a very solid right fullback who had spent four seasons in England with Sheffield Wednesday and laterally Chelsea. Striker Viorel Moldovan had just finished a noticeably short stint in English football during the 97/98 season with Coventry, making 10 appearances before moving to Turkish football to sign for Fenerbahce.

First Half Analysis

Build Up Play

Romania’s defensive shape saw them sink into a medium block with two strikers primed to press forward with Hagi just underneath, leaving their remaining seven players to hold as a unit in a 3-4 formation. With the spaces available on the flanks Hoddle gave more license to Campbell and Neville to spread wide like full backs and advance forward to combine with Anderton and Le Saux. On the left side we saw relentless dribbles out the back from Sol Campbell, combining his athleticism with Le Saux’s pace gave Romania a constant headache on that side. On the right Neville was more direct with his passes, using Shearer as the point of attack before advancing forward, but Neville would also work well with Anderton to double up on Munteanu.

We also saw more aggressive actions from England’s wing backs in possession in the first half. Both Le Saux and Anderton attacked their opponent like a traditional winger would, all in search of reaching the byline and whipping in a cross for England’s attacking trio of Shearer, Sheringham and Scholes.

It was clear that Romania Coach Iordanescu had utilized a similar strategy found in the Tunisia match, which was to attack England’s right side. Romania would also attempt to draw Anderton out with dribbles from Munteanu, thus isolating Neville 1v1 against Adrian Ilie who would pull wide into the channels to create attacks into the box. Romania looked measured in possession and with Hagi floating between the lines it forced England to defend more as a unit by lifting their back line to condense the spaces.  

It was apparent that there was an edge to the atmosphere of this match which, not too dissimilar to that we saw against Tunisia, that caused England’s players to react uncharacteristically. There were a number of glaring errors in possession in the first half, which no doubt gave the Romanian’s confidence that they could later capitalize upon a mistake.

Counter Attack Play

With England sinking back into a defensive shape of 5 in defense and a central cluster of 3 midfielders closing down centrally, should the ball turn over in their favor it was evident that Scholes was to be the transition point they looked for. The problems England ran into because of this were three-fold:

Firstly if Scholes found himself too deep England lacked the creative quality to beat Romania’s quick reactive press, which saw Galca step onto Scholes immediately, thus leaving Ince and Batty to combine their way out of trouble.

Secondly, when Scholes did manage to pick up the ball and carry possession into space Romania could afford to have a center back step into midfield and apply pressure, with their wing backs dropping back into the defensive line providing sufficient coverage.

Thirdly, when Scholes was able to break pressure and combine with Shearer and Sheringham there was a distinct lack of quality in the final third. In the clip below we see Shearer pulling wide, with Sheringham and Scholes 2v2 in the box, yet the chance would fizzle out as the cross missed the central zone entirely.

In looking at Romania’s opening match against Colombia it would have been clear to Hoddle and his staff that for all Romania’s technique in buildup they truly excelled when given the opportunity to counter attack. Across the field they press the ball very well, not only in defending to prevent the opponents attacks but also timing their defensive actions such that it allows them to intercept possession and create an attack of their own.

In this match Romania defended very well in the opening 45 minutes with Galca showing himself to be a terrific holding midfielder, quickly dispossessing his opponent and finding Gabby Popescu and Hagi in good areas to create. In Ilie and Moldovan they have two strikers able to find spaces that stretched England’s back three, and in the clips we see that Ilie almost opened the scoring with a deft chip over Seaman.

First Half Incident

This very strong challenge on Paul Ince by Gheorghe Hagi in the early moments of the match would continue to cause the Inter Milan midfielder discomfort throughout the opening half. On 32 minutes it was decided that Ince had to be replaced, with Hoddle opting for David Beckham who was to make his debut at a major tournament with England.

It was immediately apparent that Beckham was playing with a point to prove, especially as he would have entered the competition viewing himself as a starting player. All the discussions about being “dropped” were now over, it was up to him to show what he could do on the world stage.

Second Half Analysis

As the teams re-entered the field for the second half neither coach had made any substitutions, however it was to be the events of the opening minute of the half that shaped the remainder of the game.

A defensive mistake from England at a throw in would gift Romania the lead, with Viorel Moldovan capitalizing on a momentary lapse in concentration from Adams and crashing the ball into the bottom corner. While there were no immediate changes in personnel, we did see a far more aggressive England attack during their build up play.

Build Up

In Beckham England now had someone who could quickly switch the point of attack with pinpoint accuracy, so should their advances down one wing not work out he would position himself at the base of the midfield providing a natural switch point to aggressively attack the opposite side.

Further to this we now saw England’s wing backs inverting centrally like inside forwards. This not only allowed Shearer and Sheringham to spend more time in the box, thus occupying all three Romania defenders, their positioning maintained that Neville and Campbell had a point of attack to combine with as they advanced forward like traditional attacking full backs.

Counter Attack Play

With England advancing forward in search of a goal this gave Romania the perfect opportunity to attack the spaces vacated in England’s midfield should the ball turnover. The pace of Moldovan and Ilie were a constant threat throughout the half, but even in his advancing years Hagi could still cover ground when required.

As the second half wore on England sought to increase the speed of their attack play in search of a goal. The inclusion of Beckham not only gave England a quality passer in build up, but in moments of transition he also had the creativity and quality to thread the perfect through ball or make a pin point cross that could consistently hurt the opponent.

Add to this the 72nd minute substitute of Michael Owen, coming on to replace Teddy Sheringham, and now England have genuine pace to threaten Romania in behind, but also a lethal finisher should he find an opportunity inside the box.

Poor Defending

Unfortunately for England a stellar second half attacking performance was bookended by two defensive moments to forget.

We can see that during the first goal a simple attack from a throw in eluded three England defenders, all three of whom were regarded as some of the best players in the Premier League at the time (Le Saux, Campbell and Adams), which illustrates a lack of concentration at a critical time. Tony Adams body position was especially startling, given his experience you’d be surprised to see him facing his own goal and being caught off balance at such an important moment.

With Romania’s winning goal England’s entire defensive structure would conspire to implode upon itself. The play begins with a lack of pressure on the ball, which allows Munteanu to loft a ball forward behind the England back line. Adams gets drawn to the checking movement of Moldovan as he steps toward Munteanu, leaving a large space centrally that Neville and Campbell don’t drop to compact as they presumably weren’t expecting Adams to step forward.

Amazingly the central run comes from Romania right back Dan Petrescu who finds himself in an attacking midfield position, and stranger still his run is tracked by Chelsea teammate Graeme Le Saux who despite getting back is caught wrong side and turns his back on contact, allowing Petrescu to strike past Seaman to seal the Romanian victory.

While these England players certainly have the defensive acumen and ability to make a back 3 system work, I am left questioning weather the familiarity of playing either within, or in front of, a 4 man defensive system for their clubs is causing these errors in judgement. Neville was the only defensive change, which doesn’t cause any a drop in quality in my opinion, so it’s the collective mindset that would be in question for me.

While Tunisia didn’t have the quality to punish nominal errors Romania certainly did today, so it will be something that Hoddle must correct should they wish to advance into the latter stages of the tournament.

Individual Analysis

Gheorge Hagi

I was quite disappointed with Hagi’s performance in this game truth be told. Sure there were moments of magic, but the erratic shooting from distance became old very quickly. I pulled his shot map from the analysis we did during his three games at Euro 96 and while the locations were similar his output was far better two years previous.

Amazingly he’d go on to have three more seasons at Galatasary after this World Cup, and would again captain Romania at Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland, with his playing career coming to a close at the end of the 00/01 season when he would take over as national team manager.  

David Beckham

We covered Beckham quite a bit in the second half clips, but it bears repeating how much he impacted the England second half performance. For someone who had operated almost exclusively as a right winger in a 442 for Manchester United, to come into central midfield and boss the game the way he did was remarkable to see all these years later.

Michael Owen

Owen once again gave a very good account of himself in general play after his 72nd minute substitution. What naturally will stand out from this game was his equalizing goal, which was the perfect illustration of Owen’s natural inclination to find space inside the box to score. He was desperately unlucky in stoppage time not to win the game, however his strike from distance would agonizingly brush the left post of Stelea’s goal frame. Surely Owen has done enough to claim a starting place after this performance, probably aided and abetted by Sheringham having a relatively quiet match.

The Final Word

There’s no doubt this match will have caused unrest among the England fan base, a support who would expect their team to compete in every match, yet it was the manner of the defeat that will resonate so deeply.

On the BBC website Hoddle angrily attributed both Romanian goals to “schoolboy defending”. He’d go on to say, “We’ve really given two sloppy goals away when I felt Romania didn’t really create an out-and-out chance”.

“I felt we might be the team to go on and punish them, but we have given two terrible goals away, defensively dreadful. If you defense like that, then at this level, you’re going to be punished.”

While England did create more chances than Romania in the match, there was a lurking threat to everything Romania did in the final third that was simply not matched by England. You add to this a defensive frailty that England showed and very quickly you have a recipe for exiting a tournament early. Its obvious that England have to improve defensively, but at what cost in attack?

England’s build up play was given a significant uplift in this match with Campbell and Neville advancing forward with regularity, but the security Ince and Batty provided was no longer available after 32 minutes. Beckham’s inclusion saw an immediate upswing in attacking prowess, but it did leave Batty exposed at times which further extends the debate as to what England’s strongest midfield actually looks like.

Should you be of the inclination to suggest fielding England’s most “in form” eleven is the way to go, then it would be considered negligent of Hoddle not to see both Beckham and Owen as starters in the, now must win, match against Colombia on the 26th June in Lens.

As a manager who appears unable to move away from his preferred 3-5-2 system, the question will always therefore revolve around which personnel offer the best balance in which to overcome its opponent. Against Colombia England will enter as favorites, therefore it may force Hoddle’s hand to select an eleven that simply out-guns its opponents at the expense of remaining defensively solid.

Join us on the 26th of June to find out!

You can read the original 1998 BBC match report from the BBC website archives by CLICKING HERE



About the Author

Picture of Alistair Bain

Alistair Bain

Alistair is a native of Hamilton, Scotland, and an A License qualified coach with vast experience in the football industry. Currently residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alistair's resume includes a variety of roles within football clubs in Scotland, England, and the United States.

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