England are unbeaten in 39 qualifying games, under three different managers, dating all the way back to 2009. In Gareth Southgate, they have a leader who is not afraid to make big decisions (omitting talisman Rooney is just one example), and a youthful group of players who all ply their trade in the world’s best league. Southgate, contrary to popular belief, brings a wealth of experience to the role. As a player he went to four major tournaments. He understands the media pressure better than most, and was head of England youth development and promotes humanistic growth in players from a psychological perspective. This is a man who spent time out of the game studying elite coaches in different sports; has a mindset of centred on continual evolution; is in touch with modern coaching; and brings an extremely composed temperament.
On the surface, it’s logical to think the current England squad are in a great spot ahead of this summer’s World Cup. However, this national team tends to have a predictable cycle that feels like a perpetual groundhog day. England look prolific in the qualifiers and perform well in friendlies against top teams. Supermarkets sell out of their car flags in June and the nation believes that ‘this really is the year’. The Euro ’96 cohort appear daily on a variety of TV channels and talk up the chances of the Three Lions.
Limited in 3-5-2?
So, three months out from the race for the biggest prize in sports, how are England shaping up?
Looking at the potential line-ups, several teams are likely to play a back three at the World Cup. For a nation that wants to dominate the ball (the evidence suggests different but that’s what we’ve been promised by the “DNA” leaders), playing two up top (we’ve been informed that this is a preferred option) against a back three will be a problem, especially in a 3 5 2 system which seems to be England’s back up/potential setup.
3 5 2 is a very safe way of getting two up (as you retain width plus extra cover of the spare CB in comparison to 433) but the issue is that the opposition still have a spare man at the back whilst matching you 3v3 centrally. Thus, you don’t achieve either of the intended overloads. You don’t match them 1v1 high (as a 442 v 433 would for example) nor do you have an extra player centrally. 3 5 2 is very, very difficult to overload the middle of the pitch (given most sides defend with a three man central midfield even if they shape up differently with the ball) therefore the apparent advantage of going two up becomes nullified if you want to dominate the ball and control the game.
The principle of creating the free player centrally is fundamental, unless you have better players with the ball individually than the opposition, which England won’t have. Having a spare player at the back would likely only serve as safety rather than advantageous when looking at England’s profiles as they don’t particularly have defenders who will be ruthless in terms of stepping into midfield with the ball, to disrupt the midfield line.
Two Plans for Two Opposing Strategies
Whilst one could endlessly debate both the player selection and system(s) that best suits England, there are concrete variables and non variables that they will face. What is inevitable is that England MUST to have two major tactical strategies in terms of their preparation. Here, I’m not referring to the moronic Sunday league pub/tabloid talk of Plan A being to pass it, and Plan B being to get Andy Carroll or Crouchy in and lump it. Instead, England need to have plans for two main opposition strategies:
The first strategy: They must be able to collectively break a team down who will setup as Iceland did. Have they learned from that experience? If so, it was worth the short-term pain. They cannot have another display of a linear and mechanical style of play. Admittedly, Portugal won the Euros playing this way and their achievement will only encourage lesser teams to reason that it is in fact possible to progress against the world’s elite through discipline and concentration even with inferior players. Many teams will respect England’s star names and be happy to be without the ball.
Will England be prepared tactically to overcome the inevitable defensive wall. When they’re asked these questions, will they have the solutions? Here, I don’t refer to nice unopposed passing patterns against mannequins at St George’s Park. Look at the detail. How are they operating in that inevitable jungle? What’s the plan on the outside in terms of underruns and overlaps or are they playing back to the pivot like they did endlessly in the Euros? Who’s making the vertical runs from midfield and when? Will they work to circulate faster to free up 1v1 duels on the sides or will they play at one speed like in France? Who is speeding the play up on the halfway line? Who is arriving in between the lines with bravery to put Kane in front of the GK? Or are they relying on one number 10 (who is in my opinion one of the most overrated players in the league) and going backwards like two years ago? Which players are arriving in the free spaces when they circulate? Will Southgate risk more players ahead of the ball at key times whilst retaining relevant balance in certain zones based on the opposition?
The second strategy: when playing the top teams, can England go long periods without making defensive mistakes and can they keep their identity? For example, Croatia probably have the best midfield at the World Cup. Are the players brave enough to want the ball in these moments, and is Southgate brave enough to be bold rather than safe? Hodgson fell short in these moments, and ultimately, examined and possibly exploited by those who really know. Southgate’s football acumen will really be put under the microscope in the pressure-cooker of all competitions. This is where we will see how good he is as a coach.
Boldness isn’t bringing Rashford in with 30 mins to go as opposed to 15. It revolves around instilling an attitude, an unshakable belief and adventure through aggression and attacking spirit. For example, does he look at Modric, Rakitic, Perisic and Kovacic and respond by playing Dier and Henderson as two pivots behind a disciplined 10 or does he compete and play the likes of Wilshere and Lallana alongside a destroyer who can still feed the higher players rather than full backs? Will Southgate demand that his midfield players play forward as opposed to 2016 and if they don’t (due to the occasion) will he step in? Will he play the media favourites, several of whom are clearly out of their depth when you actually watch them with the TV sound off? Functionality and pragmatism or boldness and adventure?
Too many times at tournaments you see players who excel in the Premier League and they go hiding for England in big moments. For me, sport at the highest level is about taking risks, being aggressive and playing to win. I’ve always been drawn to the attitude of the best sporting teams of all time such as the Australians in cricket or the All Blacks in rugby who play the game to win through methodically attacking the opposition and taking the initiative from them. England don’t have a front line good enough individually at international level to be solid and wait for moments to break. This isn’t Barca with Messi, Suarez, Coutinho etc where you can be underloaded and still win. Brazil can afford to defend with six and attack with that front four because over 90 mins they will create. England must tactically be close to perfect.
England’s Chances Will Hinge on Conviction at the Top
England have some really exciting young players and could go deep in the competition if they were bold and brave, both individually and collectively. The FA has had a disappointing few years with appointments, racism accusations, and various other off field matters. Ultimately, although they’ve had tremendous success at youth levels, they need a big World Cup. England’s only chance of progressing relies on unshakable conviction from the top and Southgate’s starting eleven on that first game will tell you everything you need to know.
A large number of his starting team play for City, Spurs and Liverpool; they are programmed to a high pressing, possession based attacking philosophy. Countries such as Germany and Spain benefitted hugely in their recent tournament successes from Bayern and Barcelona’s cohesive style of play. Add to this, that Southgate has the luxury of being guaranteed his job beyond Russia, regardless of how the campaign turns out; he really has little to lose. Without the courage and bravery across the board, the England players will be watching the quarter finals from their homes.