Here’s how the USMNT can beat England at the World Cup

Quick Hits
  • With a huge game coming up on Black Friday, we’re wondering: how can the United States beat England?
  • To help us answer that question, we’re looking to a team that beat England twice over the summer

England is a deeper and more talented soccer team than the United States. I don’t think you’ll find many people on this planet who would argue with that statement.

Gareth Southgate’s England roster is made up of top-tier Premier League players whose clubs live and die by their play on the field every weekend – and they beat Iran 6-2 in their World Cup opener. Gregg Berhalter’s roster has plenty of talent, too, don’t get me wrong. But right now, the U.S. simply doesn’t have the same amount of elite talent as teams like England do. They’re also not consistent enough, as we saw in the United States’ 1-1 draw with Wales on Monday.

Um, okay Joe, really great job getting me excited for USA/England on Black Friday. Really fantastic stuff.

Before you jump all over me, let me finish! Just because the United States will be at a talent disadvantage against England on Friday doesn’t mean they can’t take down the giant later this week. In fact, there’s another giant-killer who recently crafted a recipe that the USMNT would be wise to follow. Who is that upset specialist? 

It’s Hungary.

How to be a giant-killer

You might not know this, but recently Hungary has pretty much written the book on taking down the big boys of international soccer. So far this year, they’ve beaten England twice by a 5-0 combined scoreline. They’ve also beaten and drawn Germany en route to finishing second in a Nations League group with England, Germany, and Italy.

With millions of eyes on the United States’ game against England on Friday, what can they learn from Hungary’s two wins over England?

“The key is two things. One is obviously secure defending,” Ivan Militar, who works as the Academy Director for El Paso Locomotive in the USL Championship and as a Hungarian football analyst, told Backheeled.

There’s the first bit: defending. In their two most recent wins against England (a 1-0 win on June 4 and a 4-0 win on June 14), Hungary averaged 36.5% possession. They forced England to have possession and break through their compact defensive block before even sniffing the box, let alone the goal. Just look at this image from that 4-0 win. Even inside the first five minutes, Hungary took care to compress space and block off key areas of midfield, which you can see in this image.

Though Berhalter has tried to get his United States team to be more expansive and to prioritize possession, the U.S. often looks more comfortable when they have the chance to absorb pressure, win balls in midfield, and attack in transition. Though they squandered a host of transition attacks in the second half, the United States’ goal against Wales on Monday came against a stretched Welsh defense. 

Multiple key wins against Mexico in 2021 and 2022 also featured a more conservative defensive approach. So, it might be worthwhile for the U.S. to dust off a more gameplan for their upcoming game against England, too. For as successful as England has been under Southgate, making a semifinal run at the last World Cup and finishing second at the most recent European Championship, the team is not particularly precise in possession.

“England is at the point where they think they should be playing a certain style of play. They think that they are modern and they [use] positional play, but truly I think the details are missing,” Militar said. 

For all of their quality, England struggle to break down good teams. That good qualifier is important there. Iran gave England the ball in their World Cup opener on Monday, but were so poor defensively that England had no trouble carving right through them. Against a solid defensive opponent, Southgate’s team often plays slowly before turning to Kane to help create chances in possession.

“If you look at how they win, England always wins these big games either with set pieces or if some of those players like [Raheem] Sterling or Harry Kane have a better day,” Militar said. “But if Sterling or Harry Kane has an average day and you can manage the set pieces and you play a deep block, they’re not going to be able to break you down. They’re just simply not. They don’t have principles, they don’t have the type of players.”

If the U.S. force England to have the ball, Southgate’s team might not be able to break through them.

How to score

Still, Hungary didn’t just frustrate England. They beat them. And that’s what the United States will try to do on Friday, which brings us to the second part of Hungary’s “How to Beat England” recipe: effective counter attacks.

“The key is two things. One is obviously the secure defending,” Militar said. You heard that part already. Here’s the bit that we haven’t gotten to yet. “But the deep block these days is so widespread that everybody can do it. Everybody can do it for 60 minutes…But in order to be good for 90 minutes, you need to have successful counter attacks.”

It makes sense, right? If you want to stay in the fight for 90 minutes, you’ve got to throw the occasional punch, even if you’re going to revert right back to protecting yourself from body blows.

“You need to create meaningful chances to make the opponent uncomfortable,” Militar said. “If you don’t make them uncomfortable, then they will have the confidence in the 70th, 75th minute to win the game,” he added later.

Hungary did a good job of this in their recent games against England. In fact, one of the goals that Hungary scored in their 4-0 win over England back in June came on a quick counter attack. After defending in their own half, Hungary won a throw in on the far side of the field. With England caught high up the field, they attacked through their No. 9, broke into the opposing half, and scored against a scrambling England defense. You can see the final phase of that counter attack in the clip down below.

One specific counter attacking strategy that worked for Hungary against England is something that Militar called a “double-tempo counter attack”. 

Instead of playing a ball directly in behind England’s backline, Hungary would play the ball up to a forward who was pinning back the opposing backline. Then, that forward would drop the ball back to a teammate, who could then play the ball forward. That extra step in their attacking process pulled apart England’s backline, further disorganizing them and creating extra open space for Hungary to exploit.

“The ‘one tempo’ would be that we win the ball and right away we put it into space and we run on it. But what we’re doing with double tempo, is ‘up, back, through,’” Militar said.

Between their counter attacking principles, set pieces, and a solid defensive foundation, Hungary has established the blueprint for the United States to use against England. We’ll see if Berhalter sets up his U.S. in the same — or at least a similar — way to how Hungary set up to beat England not once, but twice.

“If a team like Hungary can set up and create counter attacks against England and win 4-0, America should do the same thing,” Militar said. “Just frustrate them and trust that they won’t have solutions for breaking down a deep block.”

The recipe is there. Now all that’s left for the United States is to cook up an upset.