England breezed through UEFA qualification for Russia 2018, topping Group F unbeaten and only conceding three goals, the best defensive record in the area. Gareth Southgate was instrumental in the generation and implementation of the English FA’s DNA program, but while he retains the principles of possession and pressing, England’s shape this summer will likely see a three-man defence deployed, a break from the usual 4-2-3-1. Part of this may be down to the success of three-man variants in the Premier League, but crucially, it also gives England greater room to create overloads between the lines of the opposition defence, especially with a mobile midfield and Kyle Walker able to spring forwards from his right-sided centre-back position.
England will likely use a three-man midfield, with two mobile players who can play a sort of six/eight role flanking a defensively-minded screener, either Eric Dier or Jordan Henderson. They might also tighten up by playing these two together, but that will restrict England’s ability to create from deep. Ruben Loftus-Cheek could also start: he has been used out wide for Crystal Palace in a 4-4-2 but tucks in, has a good range of passing from deep, and should England need to spring attacks from further back he is the best option. Ahead of this three, which could see Dele Alli playing deeper than his accustomed role at Tottenham Hotspur, Raheem Sterling will be nominally on the right side as an attacking midfielder or inverted winger, while Harry Kane will play up front.
As an alternative, England do have the option to play a Hoffenheim-style 3-3-2-2, with wing-backs flanking a defensive midfielder, two attacking midfielders like Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, and two strikers in Kane and Jamie Vardy. This option would work well against teams who pack the back line, as Panama will do and Tunisia may. Both Lingard and Dele can move into the half-spaces, and Kane and Vardy are happy to stretch the play wide too; this could pose an exciting array of options ahead of a solid base, but expect a more conservative approach to start with.
Width will come in both instances from the wing-backs, probably Kieran Trippier on the right, though Walker excels in this role and could be used for greater dynamism should Southgate feel comfortable with alternatives at centre back. On the left, Ashley Young and Danny Rose will compete: Rose is more dynamic, but Young has greater experience; Fabian Delph is also an option, given his role at times for Manchester City this season. Both wing-backs and one of the centre backs can push up, safe in the knowledge that the screening midfielder can cover, and this gives England a multiplicity of options in building play. Should Jordan Pickford start in goal, England will also have a ‘keeper comfortable with distribution, which further enhances their ability to move, create space, and break the opposition lines.
Key to this are three facets of England’s play: the wing-back’s mobility and shielding by the defensive midfielder; the central midfielder’s ability to push up and out in to the half spaces with the aim of creating an overload with the wing-backs; and Sterling’s positioning – he roams deep to collect, turn, and carry, but will also pop up in spaces created by Kane’s movement in the box.
England, crucially, come into this World Cup with options and a good degree of understanding of Southgate’s new-ish formation. There’s no doubt that the omission of game-breakers such as Jack Wilshere or Adam Lallana raised eyebrows, and England’s ability to create line-splitting passes is lessened by this. Having said that, this team has enough creativity in players such as Sterling and Dele Alli, who will look to replicate Spurs’ scintillating quick exchanges in the final third with Kane; they also have a solid base upon which to build.
England’s group is not easy: Belgium match or even exceed England’s individual talent in most positions, while Panama will be a nightmare to play through and Tunisia can defend and hit teams on the break. Southgate’s men will have enough quality to progress, though; what they need is to play well enough against the poorer teams to gather confidence for what awaits. That will be the real test of England’s tactics, and temperament.
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