Joe. H. Harman writes about England‘s search for a tactical blueprint.
With the Euros round the corner and England due to meet Croatia this coming Sunday, question marks continue to percolate over the formation and personnel that Gareth Southgate, manager of the England men’s team, should employ for the imminent European Championship which begins on Friday.
Spurred on by a heated chat with my brother, Jack, after the recent friendly against Romania, I figured there’s still time to discuss the three main formations that Southgate seems to have become wedded to and attempt to understand who may occupy those roles best.
Before any criticism comes Southgates’ way, the man needs love and respect for his thoughtful and honest assessment of the racist booing during the act of taking the knee in both friendlies. Going even further, released this week in The Players Tribune, is a deeply honest overview of how he sees the landscape of football and its relationship with race and racism. He explained (not that he needs to) the thought process behind the action of taking the knee and asked those who deem themselves affronted by a silent, peaceful act to see the meaning behind it. Racial inequality and racial injustice exists and must be confronted and removed. Those who oppose, attempt to stifle, or belittle acts of protest of this manner must ask themselves why a non-violent action causes them so much upset and anger.
Southgate confirmed after the Romania game that he knew his starting XI, bar one possible tweak. When I shared this with the aforementioned brother, I believe there was some momentarily static over the phone; that or his convulsions of uncertainty created some electrical emittance.
A manager that has drifted without conviction between a number of stylistically different setups, has now finally settled on a starting XI, just in time for a major tournament. Convenient no?
A trite offhand, but these last two years has seen few convincing outings for England and having to weather the perpetual change in personnel has left many fans uncertain of who they can hang their hats on. The debate of the goalkeeper ( Pickford or Henderson) personifies the niggling indecision that seems to have plagued the squad since Russia 2018.
It feels safe to say that the ‘England DNA’ trope has been shelved, at least for the elite side of international football, as we have watched Southgate experiment with differing styles of sometimes reactive, defensive football, then others, more advanced and attacking. It is this reactive identity that is at odds with the talent this England squad has, and having Southgate spend the recent international fixture programme making us ‘tactically flexible’ seems to have created more questions than answers.
Our fixture against Denmark in 2020 seemed to be the first time we saw this formation, with Trippier playing the LWB role and TTA occupying the RWB position. A system that offers defensive solidity also streamlines the attacking flow as the wing-backs become the central focus of goal creating actions. Thomas Tuchel has used a variation of this, incorporating Mount and Ziyech/Pulisic behind Havertz with Chilwell and James offering width from deep positions. This is a system that could be used by England, and yet it would need creativity balanced with solidity in midfield, as it removes the 3rd man that a three-man midfield would offer. Interestingly, Germany setup in their recent friendly against Latvia in a 3-4-3 with Kimmich and Gosens (who is well schooled in the setup), so it’s possible we shall see it as the preferred formation this summer.
There are several question marks with England adopting this system, with the first being we have a slew of attacking No.10s with Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Mason Mount all vying for gametime and all capable of mixing it with Europe’s elite. It would also require Kane to maintain his positional role that he has developed for Spurs; dropping into that false nine role and allow the wide forwards to fill the space ahead of him. The other issue lies in the two central midfielders and what they are tasked with. Chelsea’s interpretation of the system works with Jorginho rarely crossing the halfway line, acting as the foil to Kante’s dynamism who was able to support the attacking phases of play and break up the opponents counter. Whether Southgate has the mix to recreate this dynamic in the first team remains to be seen. The danger is that if the central two players are too reactive or wasterful in possession, then England will stand to cede the middle of the pitch which naturally exerts greater pressure on a questionable defensive unit.
Much of England’s shape will depend on the fitness of Harry Maguire, as there seems little appetite for Southgate to field a back four in his absence and therefore may not see this shape until the group stages. The midfield set-up would be a question of either an attacking midfield duo with a single holding midfielder, or the inverse with a single advanced No. 10. The formation allows minor tweaks without dramatically disrupting the shape of the team, with the wide forward positions allowing for change of personnel depending on how Southgate perceives our best mode of attack. The likes of Mount and Foden have proven their tactical flexibility, as their club managers have charged them with various starting positions and roles over the course of the season-predominantly as floating 10’s or with an instruction to start wide but to overload those central areas and half-spaces where necessary . Added to this are Sancho, Sterling and Rashford, whose pace and ability to stretch defenders along with their 1 v 1 capabilities, provides an alternative perhaps when looking to execute counter attacks against more possession heavy sides.
The formation naturally allows the full-backs to join attacking phases and would encourage them to play to their strengths. Shaw and Chilwell are at their most effective playing in this role; although it should be noted that both players have improved their positional flexibility, sometimes operating wide in a back three (Shaw) or as a wing-back (Chillwell). On the right side, much is similar with James now being used by Tuchel in the right spot of a back three. Initially he began as a marauding fullback under Lampard, however, it seems his position now is more nuanced, with his asset of speed being utilised defensively. Walker has enough experience to operate in either roles but perhaps hasn’t been used as a true fullback in sometime. Trippier is the most functional out the fullbacks, which is not meant as a discredit, only that he fulfills the role in it’s simplest form.
This formation was used by Southgate in the 2018 WC with a rather attacking slant as Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard played in behind Kane and Sterling. This left only Jordan Henderson acting as a defensive cover. Should the England coach go with this formation it will again encourage the fullbacks to act as the creative outlet along with perhaps one additional creative midfielder , possibly Grealish supported by a more defensive minded double pivot. With Alli and J’Lingz not in the squad, the options of Bellingham, Mount or Foden could act as more complex replacements offering greater press out of possession and more diversity in the attacking phases if opting for an attacking interpretation of the middle three. The variation on this shape could also come from who would partner with Kane upfront, as Sterling’s position is no longer a guarantee. A curve-ball would be to partner Dominic Calvert-Lewin with Kane, allowing the Spurs captain to drop into a deeper role with overlaps coming from ACM and FBs’.
The five spots across the midfield could allow Southgate to give greater protection to his CB’s should he deem it necessary, especially if we come up against the stronger nations in the later rounds of the tournament. With Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson, Jude Bellingham and Kalvin Philips all available for those central berths, it will give an opportunity to vary the partnerships depending on the opponent.
I am still yet to find an England fan who can safely blurt out their starting XI without any hesitation. Unlike previous tournaments, this squad has far greater variety and the personnel are attune to a higher level of tactical understanding due to the standard of club coaches in England. This should provide a degree of contentment among fans, and yet it feels a very long time since we fielded anything that comes close to our strongest team. It could be that the group stages, which are kind of hard to be knocked out of, act as the warm up games for England and only once we progress will we see a settled eleven.
Should one be allowed a hope; then it is that Southgate adopts a system that allows these players to play at the level they are capable of. If that happens then we stand poised for a thoroughly enjoyable tournament.