Coach signals another tactical revolution as he builds for future
Switch to 4-3-3 will face major test against Spain Manager aware time is short before Euro 2020
It is almost a year since Gareth Southgate made the change that would launch England’s Russia 2018 adventure – the 3-5-2 formation that he staked the team’s World Cup progress on post-qualification. Now the time has come, the England manager says, to move on.
The first signs were there in last month’s defeat by Spain, when he said his side were too easily penned in at Wembley, and it was not much better when they squeezed a victory against Switzerland at the King Power stadium three days later. An additional worry is that England are not scoring goals, or even looking like they might, and as he reflected on their 0-0 draw with Croatia in Rijeka, Southgate said that it was the right time for a change.
It had been the previous November when he adopted the 3-5-2 formation after qualification for Russia was assured. Kyle Walker was shuffled over to a right-sided centre-back. Harry Maguire came into the team around that time and was eventually obliged to play as a right-footer on the left side of the three centre-backs. It was a bold move from Southgate, launched in the November friendlies against Germany and Brazil and worked on at every opportunity after that.
Against Croatia in Rijeka, he finally went back to 4-3-3 and for all England’s lack of cutting edge in attack they held their own in midfield against two of the finest players in that position in the world, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. There will be another serious test against Spain in Seville tomorrow when, most likely, Harry Winks will replace the suspended Jordan Henderson and Southgate gets to see how his players adapt to 4-3-3 against a nation that has it in its blood.
“We need to have alternatives and options,” Southgate said. “In the summer we had a choice. We either focused on getting one system as embedded as we possibly could, or we tried to divide our time and have alternatives when maybe we would not have got to the same level doing both. We felt at that stage we wanted to focus on perfecting one system and we recognise that took us so far.
“But there are weaknesses in the 3-5-2. [Against Croatia] we were able to show that some of the things we observed in the semi-final, and in the game against Spain last month, in this system we were able to correct them.”
Southgate has always expressed his faith in Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford to score the goals if the chances come their way. In the empty stadium in Rijeka it was not Rashford’s best night but having scored against Spain and Switzerland, he retains his manager’s faith. “We love him to bits,” Southgate said of the United man, “so he’ll take more of those chances than not.”
The flaws in the 3-5-2 system had become too obvious to him in reviewing the semi-final defeat by Croatia when a tired England side just struggled to control the game, especially in the second half. He wants his players to pass the ball out from the back and the cover of five defenders meant there was some leeway for errors if they made them.
“In simplest terms without the ball [in 3-5-2] we don’t cover the pitch quite as well,” he said. “So we weren’t able to get pressure high up the field and the last two or three opponents have pinned our back five back with three forwards, or two wing-backs and a forward, and that meant we were getting a bit overloaded in midfield.
“[Against Croatia] we were able to get better pressure on their back four and on their midfield players. But we also felt going into the summer that a lot of the defence was very new and the comfort of the five gave us some stability to build the game.
“We were learning the style we wanted to play, and [needed] to allow for some mistakes that we felt in players’ first few games of international football looked like happening. So I think somebody like Maguire now has established himself. He looks like a top player. That allows us to go to the four [at the back].”
The 22-year-old Winks won his only cap a year ago and lost most of last season to injury but was in the Spurs side who lost 4-2 to Barcelona at Wembley and is clearly regarded by Southgate as part of the team’s future, especially given the style he wants to play. Joe Gomez is likely to replace John Stones and had the Liverpool man not missed the World Cup with injury he may well have started ahead of Maguire.
Southgate said: “We have players in [Nathaniel] Chalobah, Winks, [Ross] Barkley – who really missed a year’s football – and it is great to see them back, Gomez the same. Harry we know is a player who connects the game really well and who can receive under pressure. It is still early in his development – I was speaking to him about the game with Barca last week and those nights you learn so much from. But he is the type of player we want to build the future around.”
With a new contract signed and the semi-finals and final of Euro 2020 to be played at Wembley, Southgate is keenly aware he has limited time to develop a new team: “We recognise you have to keep progressing and advancing. For me, the most important thing is we build for two years’ time. We could live hand to mouth and pick teams that are maybe more experienced for a game like [Croatia].
“We could have played more of our more experienced right-backs at leftback and not given [Ben] Chilwell the opportunity, but in doing what we did you find and discover a player who looks very comfortable at this level. So, I think we have to try to continue that process of we always know we have to keep getting results but also looks to two years’ time.”
In the swim: Harry Kane (above), James Maddison and Mason Mount (left) enjoy some downtime yesterday in Croatia
Team spirit: England players recuperate in the Adriatic before moving on to Seville for tomorrow’s match against Spain