England qualified for the 2018 World Cup comfortably, emerging from UEFA Group F without losing a single game. They won eight and drew two of their 10 fixtures, conceding just three goals along the way. But with a place at this summer’s finals sealed, Gareth Southgate immediately changed tactics for friendlies against Brazil, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, doing away with the previously favoured 4-2-3-1 to implement a 3-5-2 system. Given the modification proved reasonably successful, this will probably be England’s shape going into the tournament in Russia.
This tactical switch was facilitated by the rise of ball-playing centre-backs in John Stones, Harry Maguire and converted full-back Kyle Walker. They are likely to form England’s back-three this summer, with Jordan Pickford set to take up the goalkeeping berth. Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson will compete for the defensive midfield position, while Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard may take up the other central midfield roles in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s absence. Recently appointed captain, Harry Kane will act as the lone striker with support coming from Raheem Sterling. Out wide, Kieran Trippier is the favourite for the right wing-back role, while Ashley Young or Danny Rose will start on the left.
Learning from past failures, Southgate has prioritised better build-up play since taking charge in 2016. This informed the move to a back three, a setup that has become more popular in the Premier League in recent years. The new shape benefits England’s possession in two clear ways. Firstly, it provides more options in the first line of build-up than the old back four, meaning there are more starting points for attacks. And secondly, it is harder to press as the three covers more space horizontally than the previous two-man centre-back partnership could.
Walker, Stones and Maguire can push into midfield secure in the knowledge that two centre-backs are covering for them. Stones is particularly useful when driving forward, and he can often be seen altering his position to give a line-breaking pass to his central defensive team-mates. He also occasionally ventures onto the same line as the defensive midfielder, with whom he combines to provoke and beat pressure. His movement, awareness and passing range make him England’s key man – there is simply no other player who brings what he does to the team’s possession.
England’s 3-5-2 shape becomes a 3-3-3-1 during the attacking phase. The defensive midfielder stays close to the back three, while the outer central midfielders tend to push up and occupy positions behind the opponent’s midfield line. From there they can drop deep in their inside channel to form a diamond shape with the nearby outer centre-back, wing-back and defensive midfielder, or they can stay high and offer a passing option between the lines. Sterling often joins the same line as the outer central midfielders, however he is given license to roam, meaning he at times crops up in England’s defensive third to receive possession.
The 3-3-3-1 becomes more of a 3-1-3-3 when the wing-backs take up extremely advanced positions down their respective flanks. From there they offer wide out-balls for switches of play, and look to make runs on the blind side of the opposition defence. This ploy could come in particularly handy for England against World Cup opponents who opt to sit deep and congest the centre.
While the disconnection and long balls that often stunted England’s possession in the 4-2-3-1 aren’t so prevalent in the 3-5-2, the issue of creativity remains. With Adam Lallana and Jack Wilshere left out of the squad, a great deal of responsibility could be heaped onto the inexperienced shoulders of 22-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Given the lack of alternatives, the Chelsea playmaker, who enjoyed a fine 2017/18 season on loan at Crystal Palace, will be his country’s one to watch this summer.
Defensively, England shape up in a 5-3-2, as the wing-backs drop into the back line. Southgate’s side tend to take up a medium block which, with the two forwards also dropping back, ensures they are vertically compact. This compactness is maintained by a position-focused pressing game that sees the front two and midfield three prioritise retention of shape. Shifting from side to side, they are mainly interested in denying space and blocking passes into midfield, only pressing the ball when it goes out to an opposition full-back or when a centre-back pushes forward in possession.
Drawn in Group G with Belgium, Tunisia and Panama, there is a likelihood that England will dominate possession in at least two of their group games. For those matches, they may need to be more aggressive in their pressing, but this must not lead to dangerous gaps between the lines of defence, as seen occasionally during their recent friendlies.
Better in possession and more compact without the ball, England have undoubtedly progressed under Southgate. However, only time will tell if these improvements are enough to see them through to the World Cup’s latter stages.