Southgate will switch to three at the back at the World Cup
England to alter shape to stop losing the ball Sterling and Rashford at risk in new formation
Gareth Southgate is intent on England playing a three-man defence when they go to the World Cup in Russia.
The England manager has settled on his preferred formation and will use it in next month’s friendlies at home against Germany and Brazil.
England will line up in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-2 formation and Southgate plans to continue with it in two more friendlies – probably against Holland and Italy – in the spring before finalising his squad.
“We have to focus on a system and really try to hone it, work on it, improve it,” Southgate said following the lacklustre 1-0 victory in Lithuania that completed the qualification campaign. “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.”
Southgate used the formation in Vilnius and has tried it before, most notably in the friendly defeat in Germany, and is now shifting away from the 4-2-3-1 line-up he stuck with during qualification. Talk of possibly leaving “some good players out” of his starting XI may raise questions as to where the likes of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford fit into the team.
Interestingly, Southgate played Sterling as the “No 10” behind striker Harry Kane against Slovenia – an experiment that did not work – while Rashford could be in line to understudy Kane at the World Cup.
That is because it appears Southgate’s preferred two behind the centre-forward will be Dele Alli and, when fit, Adam Lallana in what also resembles an attempt to replicate the approach taken by Tottenham Hotspur – with Lallana in the role filled by Christian Eriksen. It could also enable Harry Winks to remain in the squad.
Alternatively, Southgate suggested he might play two strikers at times, with Rashford and Jamie Vardy also in his thinking to partner Kane. “I think Vardy is an important player for us as well, and will score goals, and give us a different threat with his pace,” he said.
There was less good news for Daniel Sturridge, who came on as a late substitute in Lithuania. “In terms of Daniel, it’s like a couple of others, they need to be playing regularly with the club and playing as well as possible,” Southgate said. “He had a couple of starts but opportunities have been a bit limited,
so it is very difficult to start him in an England shirt if that’s the case.”
What does appear certain is that he will favour a three-man defence, partly to overcome England’s inability to retain possession in midfield – those central berths are still a problem, no matter the formation – where they also lack creativity, and he explained his thinking more fully on that. He wants to make England hard to beat.
The system had been used before and with success by Bobby Robson, Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle. But it went out of favour for England with Steve Mcclaren’s one-off use of it in a disastrous 2-0 defeat in Croatia in 2006. But it is in vogue in the Premier League, with Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and, on occasions, Manchester United and Manchester City using it.
“For me, in terms of the way we’d want to play from the back, I think it [a three-man defence] is a better option,” Southgate said. “At the moment, we turn the ball over too much and when we do, we split into two centre-backs wide open – we are still open [against Lithuania] with three. So, we will benefit if we don’t keep turning the ball over!
“But I think it gives us good stability and it gives us easier solutions for our midfield players as well. Then, what we play in front of it, is a possibility to switch, maybe get two strikers in in certain games, or play like we did [with two wide behind Kane]. Three in midfield and two forwards also becomes an option. But I think three at the back is what we ought to do.”
It appears that Phil Jones, John Stones and Gary Cahill are the most likely to make up that back three, with Michael Keane their strongest challenger. Southgate gave a full debut to Harry Maguire, with Chris Smalling also in his squad for the last two matches, although he did not feature.
“I think we have got some young players who are able to use the ball, all three centre-backs who played [against Lithuania],” Southgate said. “Jones is another one. Cahill is playing at Chelsea in a back three. We have to invest our time in those guys, and allow them the opportunity to improve.”
Up until now, Southgate has admitted he has been conservative in his approach.
“I think you have such little time to work with the players that the more clarity they have under pressure, then they will know what to fall back on,” Southgate explained. “We felt in the qualifying games, with 4-2-3-1, we wanted wide players who were able 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. So, it helps to switch between two systems but, for me, that would both be with three at the back.”