Gareth Southgate has committed England to playing three at the back during next summer’s World Cup having identified the system as “a better option” and will use the friendlies over the next eight months to familiarise his players with the formation.
Although there is a risk to cementing plans around one formation this far from the finals, England did employ the tactic in Sunday’s unconvincing win in Lithuania and for the last few minutes at Wembley last Thursday against Slovenia when qualification was secured for the tournament in Russia. More significantly, the team mustered arguably their most impressive performance under Southgate using the system in the narrow friendly defeat by Germany in Dortmund last season.
That performance prompted the manager and his coach, Steve Holland, to pencil in its use for when qualification for Russia had been secured. The pair spoke about making the switch more permanent while they attended the Under-21 European Championship in Poland last summer, and will use next month’s friendlies against Germany and Brazil, the top teams in Fifa’s rankings, to put those plans into action.
England were without Adam Lallana, Jamie Vardy, Fabian Delph, Phil Jones, Tom Heaton, Danny Rose and Danny Welbeck in Slovenia and Southgate admitted he cannot be sure who will be available next month. With that in mind, he intends to impose a tactical framework into which those called up can slot. “We have to have some consistency in formation and some consistency in what we are asking the players to do,” said Southgate. “The thing we don’t know is who we will get through the door in November and March with all the club games they’ve got – look at the number missing this time.
“For me in terms of the way we’d want to play from the back, I think three at the back is a better option. At the moment we turn the ball over too much, and when we do we split the two centre-backs wide open. We were still open in Lithuania with three [at the back], so we will benefit if we don’t keep turning the ball over … But I think the system gives us good stability and it gives us easier solutions for our midfield players as well. Then there is a possibility to switch with what we play in front of it: maybe get two strikers in for certain games, or two midfielders off a forward. Three in midfield and two forwards also becomes an option. But I think three at the back is what we ought to do.
“You have such little time to work with the players that the more clarity they have under pressure, the likelier it is they will know what to fall back on. We felt that, in the qualifying games, 4-2-3-1 gave us a chance to use wide players to exploit the width, and try to break down the packed defences. But we recognised along this journey what we are capable of in certain areas of the pitch. It helps to be able to switch between two systems but, for me, that would both be with three at the back.”
A youthful England side used John Stones, Michael Keane and the debutant Harry Maguire as the back three in Vilnius, though a full-strength defence would more likely see Stones joined by Gary Cahill and Phil Jones. Cahill has adapted successfully to the system at Chelsea for Antonio Conte, and Stones can step up more freely into midfield in possession with the security of two fellow centre-halfs around him.
“We have some young players who are able to use the ball,” said Southgate. “We have to invest our time in those guys and allow them the opportunity to improve. I didn’t get into the team in 1996 until I was 25. All three of those centre-backs are even younger than that but I saw positive signs. It is important we invest our time in people we think can get to the level needed.”
The system would also tap into the attacking qualities of Rose and Kyle Walker, Ryan Bertrand and Kieran Trippier, who would be in contention to fill the wing-back roles. Quite how Southgate then integrates Adam Lallana, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford in their favoured positions around his first-choice forward and captain-elect, Harry Kane, remains to be seen.Lallana should have played again for Liverpool by the time the England squad reconvene. “But that is why it was even more important to play Alli, Rashford and Kane in Vilnius because you don’t know if you are going to get them together to play in that next period,” Southgate said. “We have to focus on a system and really try to hone it, work on it, improve it. That might mean we might have to leave some good players out. But we have to start to make those decisions over the next couple of camps.
“I’m very clear when we sat down in the summer, Steve Holland and myself, we did a very strong assessment of the squad and we knew we wanted to look at three at the back in November. There were certain personnel we wanted to put into that, and we were able to start that process in Lithuania rather than next month.”
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