International coaches spend hours drilling their players into a good shape, days considering their pre-match instructions and weeks researching their opponents to formulate the optimum tactical approach. It comes as quite a blow when the coach sees fit to change formation after only 10 minutes because his side are being outplayed – but after that initial blow, Branko Brnovic's decisions enabled Montenegro to get back into the game and left Roy Hodgson appearing indecisive.
Brnovic sprung a surprise with his starting selection, playing Mirko Vucinic on the right of a 4-2-3-1. Vucinic is a mobile player who played the best football of his career at Roma on the left side but so much of Montenegro's attacking depends upon his link-up play with Stevan Jovetic. "We will maybe park a bus in defence but we also have two Ferraris in attack," boasted Brnovic before the match. Vucinic, however, was kept firmly in the garage at first.
England's bright start prompted a rethink from the Montenegro coach. Simon Vukcevic started the game at the top of a midfield trio but returned to a right-sided position to allow Vucinic to become a second striker. From then Jovetic sometimes dropped deeper, but England often had a numerical superiority in the centre.
That was because Hodgson replicated Montenegro's caution. Danny Welbeck could have been fielded upfront with Wayne Rooney but instead he attacked from the left, with Tom Cleverley the closest support to Rooney. Steven Gerrard enjoyed the positional freedom afforded by Michael Carrick's disciplined role ahead of the back four and, while Gerrard's excellent set-piece delivery – a feature of England under Hodgson – was crucial, Carrick's calm retention was more important in the first half. There is always a danger, however, that the Manchester United midfielder is unable to assert his influence when the opposition are in the ascendency.
So it proved. Brnovic's half-time decision to introduce a third forward, Dejan Damjanovic meant a lopsided 4-3-3 was Montenegro's basic shape and immediately England's back line were under more pressure with the front trio pushing their full-backs back. Montenegro now pressed effectively, forcing England into the aimless long balls Brnovic had mockingly predicted. The sheer weight of numbers around the England box created a succession of chances for Jovetic and Vucinic.
Brnovic became gradually more adventurous. His second substitution was a straight swap in midfield but his final change saw a striker, Andrija Delibasic, introduced for a left-back, Vladimir Bozovic. Montenegro had gradually switched from one up front, to a strike partnership, to a front three spread across the pitch to an attacking quartet. The pressure upon the England backline increased significantly and Hodgson failed to respond.
England's substitution – Ashley Young for Cleverley, as they moved to more of a 4-4-2 – was made in the aftermath of the equaliser, which had come from their 17th attempt. It was too late: throughout the second half England were not excelling in any area of their gameplan. Their defending was nervous, their ball retention disappointing and their counter-attacking threat minimal. Some form of change was needed.
Instead, Hodgson stuck to his guns. In stark contrast Brnovic's attacking substitutions were extremely effective – but he will regret not matching his bold pre-match comments with a similarly brave starting XI.