By Tom Gott | Nov 16, 2020, 11:45 AM GMTGareth Southgate must figure out England’s identity | Robin Jones/Getty Images
The memories of England’s 2018 World Cup run have started to fade, and questions are now being asked over the direction of the Three Lions under Gareth Southgate.
Southgate has been in the job for four years and yet still doesn’t seem to know his best system, playing a new formation each year and failing to find the kind of performances expected from a side who claim to be one of football’s elite.
Here, 90min ranks the options available to the boss.
3-5-2 was England’s system at the World Cup | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
A 3-5-2, or a variant of that formation, was a go-to for Southgate during the early stages of his reign, but it yielded mixed results which often looked better on paper.
It brought losses to Germany and France, as well as draws with Brazil and the Germans, and it was the system used at the 2018 World Cup as England managed to limp their way to the semi-final.
It stifled England’s creativity as the only width came from wing-backs instead of forwards, so it’s good to see this formation in the bin.
Kane may be able to drag some creativity out of a 4-4-2 | Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
A throwback to years gone by, the 4-4-2 is very much the ‘my team is falling apart and I just want to some balance’ formation.
While it could be a masterstroke when it comes to unlocking the new-found playmaking duties of striker Harry Kane, it would be damaging in pretty much every other way.
Wide players are too stifled and the whole setup is just too defensive, meaning there would be an unhealthier reliance on Kane to drag the team to victory than there already is.
Creative forwards can impress in a 3-4-2-1 | Visionhaus/Getty Images
The issue with a back three is that it’s just so defensive. The wide players in the midfield four are usually full-backs, and England’s central midfielders don’t offer enough balance. They’re either too defensive or too attacking.
In attack, the inside forwards get the chance to combine with the striker, and that can lead to outstanding performances from Kane, Jack Grealish & Co.
However, yet again, the width isn’t good, which is why the 3-4-2-1 is below…
England’s real firepower is out wide | IAN KINGTON/Getty Images
Instead of inside forwards, the 3-4-3 requires wide players like Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho, while you’ve also got Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Callum Hudson-Odoi capable of shining in those positions.
It’s in those wide positions that England boast some of the best depth on the planet, so to not take advantage of that feels like career suicide at times.
Unfortunately, England’s 3-4-3 relies on creativity from the wide players. With midfielders sitting so deep, it becomes far too easy to mark those wingers, and that’s if the ball can even make it out to them in the first place. Not good.
Defensive midfielders aren’t a problem in a 4-2-3-1 | Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
The 4-2-3-1 offers the best of both worlds. Defenders are shielded by a solid midfield, but there’s enough variety in attack to keep opponents guessing.
Southgate’s love of playing defensive midfielders works well here as that offers some more support to the centre-back pairing – all of which definitely need that extra protection.
In attack, that central midfielder (Grealish, Mason Mount etc) can provide the link between all the lines, and there’s width from England’s stars to help boost the creativity.
When England play a top side who like dominating possession, this is the system Southgate should look for.
England’s forwards need more freedom | Haflidi Breidfjord/Getty Images
England are supposed to be a top side, so to see the Three Lions line up in defensive formations against the likes of Denmark and Ireland is frustrating beyond belief.
4-3-3 is the ideal formation for this England side, and the worst thing is that Southgate knows this. That was the system he opted for in 2019’s European qualifiers, when England won seven of their eight games and scored a combined 36 goals.
A defensive midfielder like Declan Rice or Jordan Henderson can anchor the midfield and take the responsibility away from the two players in front of him.
That would allow England’s creative forwards to shine and dominate against smaller teams, and in theory, it should offer enough to ask real questions of the bigger sides as well.
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