England v Bulgaria | Saturday 7th September 2019, 17:00 | ITV
England arrive at this Euro 2020 qualifier on the back of a third-place finish at the inaugural Nations League, whilst currently sitting top of Group A with two wins from two. The Three Lions are now expected to bank another routine victory against Bulgaria at Wembley on Saturday.
An error strewn, extra-time semi-final defeat to the Netherlands over the summer showed warning signs against top opposition for Gareth Southgate’s young side, however the win on penalties over Switzerland in the 3rd Place Play-off lace was much more promising, with England dominating the 120 minutes.
The Three Lions have started this qualification pool in flying goalscoring form, netting 10 during a 5-0 win destruction against Czech Republic and a 5-1 victory over Montenegro.
Bulgaria, on the other hand, are without a win in four, and although goals haven’t been an issue (scoring in every game), the visitors have been leaky at the back. The Eastern Europeans have also drawn against Montenegro and been beaten by Czech Republic, so the warning signs are there for Krasimir Balakov’s charges.
Two defeats in their last two for Bulgaria, including a shock 3-2 home defeat to Kosovo, has left the guests in fourth with only two points from their opening four fixtures.
Patience in possession
Since the World Cup, Southgate has opted to switch a to a four-at-the-back system, as he looks to find the best way to utilise England’s attacking talent up top. Never scared to rotate, it is quite hard to second guess who he will start with. However, a few key patterns from the opening games have emerged.
Southgate has tried to get his England sides to dominate the ball, and against the weaker opposition, it is no surprise to see them doing so. England amassed 67% and 74% of the ball in matches with Czech Republic and Montenegro, completing 719 and 697 passes respectively in these two games.
This shows the patience the Three Lions are required to show on the ball when trying to break teams down, as both of these sides defended very narrow and deep, trying to leave England’s creative players as little space as possible.
Threats from the flanks
The electrifying pace of England’s wingers is another reason why teams often look to sit very deep and deny space in behind. As a result, for England’s opening goals against the Czechs and Montenegro, patience was key as they looked to draw the defenders out.
It is by doing this, and deciding when to quickly change the pace, that they were able to get in behind (as per Raheem Sterling’s opener against Czech Republic). The creative midfielders have been key to this approach and their ability to pick out passes through crowded defenders, a role Ross Barkley particularly impressed in against Montenegro.
Defensively, Bulgaria have also been particularly susceptible against crosses, conceding all three goals in their defeat to Kosovo from balls into the box, so it would be expected to see England try to target this, as well as Bulgaria look to respond.
Trent Alexander-Arnold will add a new element to England’s attack on the right side, giving the Bulgarians another worry, and will leave them looking to double up on him and England’s wideman down that side. Trying to close down space to cross/get in behind will mean that it should offer opportunities more centrally for England.
England to expose central opportunities
It is for this reason I believe either Mason Mount or James Maddison is worth a bet to score if they make their England debuts. It is expected that one of these will get the nod, and their willingness to shoot on site in the Premier League this season (Mount 3.50 shots per-game, Maddison 3.30 shots per-game), coupled with the potential space they will be offered outside the box, should afford them chances.
Maddison represents the best value at 2/1 (Betfair), and despite not netting for Leicester as yet this season, the signs are there that he should be able to open his tally on a potential first start for the Three Lions.
Once England have broken teams down, the floodgates have opened in both games. Czech Republic and Montenegro had to chase the game, and as a result afforded England a lot room in behind, which Sterling in particular capitalised on.
Due to Bulgaria’s poor start, they desperately need a result against England, and if they are to go behind, expect them to chase the game at some point. Furthermore, in Bulgaria’s defeat to Czech Republic, they were caught out when playing a higher line at 1-1, allowing Patrik Schick in to score, not helped by a lack of mobility in their centre halves.
England’s high ball retention also tires teams out as they look to work hard to keep their shape in the first-half, and as a result the concentration and fitness levels also drop in the second, which has led to increased space and mistakes for England to exploit.
As a result, when the space in behind opens up for England, I expect them to pick Bulgaria off at ease and rack up a handsome tally. It is for this reason I expect there to more goals in the second half (1/1 Bet365).
A routine England victory should be expected, however they made need to patient to break down a Bulgaria team who will look to frustrate for long periods. It is the perfect opportunity for one of England’s young creative midfielders to shine, and once the Three Lions are able to open the scoring, expect the goals to flow.