English fans may have developed a hearty degree of cynicism after their humiliating performances at Euro 2016, but there’s cause for at least vague optimism for the impending World Cup campaign. Gareth Southgate has slowly but surely dragged England into the modern tactical age, using a variety of formations and players during a straightforward qualification. He’s demonstrated a willingness to trust in form instead of reputation – something few of his predecessors ever managed – and the result is a squad that is full of surprises. Can they win the World Cup? Probably not, but at least they may offer something a little less turgid this time around!
As may be expected from a former center back, Southgate seems to be set on a three-man defence with pacy full backs operating down the flanks. However, rather than pack the midfield and look for a break, he also deploys a three-man forward line with two central attacking midfielders supporting a dedicated striker. This places a huge amount of pressure on the central midfield to provide the link up play, and that’s going to be crucial for enabling the team to function.
It’s a hybrid of the Italian catenaccio system that seems to work, although whether it stands up to competitive matches against high-quality opposition is still open to debate. Watch the odds shift during your football betting if in-play is your thing, it will be clear pretty early if the formation holds shape or not.
Jordan Pickford seems set to be the England #1 for the Russian tournament. He’s been one of the very few highlights of Everton’s season. Capable of not just shot stopping, but also has a knack for being able to sensibly distribute the ball across his defense. There remain some questions about his ability to command an area at set pieces, but that’s the kind of talent that is learned through experience rather than gifted. As for backup? Jack Butland or 75 times’ capped Joe Hart will be on the bench.
Southgate seems pretty much set on his first choice back three. Stones, Maguire and Walker are a trio that is comfortable on the ball but not shy of getting ‘stuck in’ either. The real question is who plays on the flanks. Rose and Trippier are capable of switching between left and right, yet the form of Ashley Young looks set to have cemented his place on the left. Expect Trippier to start the ‘easier’ matches when England expect to attack from the outset.
This is the key position. England has plenty of decent attacking midfielders, but when it comes to holding possession they are very limited. Jordan Henderson will play the pivotal #4 role and basically expected to do exactly the same as he does so consistently for Liverpool. If he becomes injured/unavailable, there aren’t any obvious replacements. Eric Dier can perform the role but tends to step into attack a little too often for comfort.
Where to begin? Alli, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling would be the most likely combination in support of Harry Kane. Alternatives include Vardy, Rashford, Lallana, and Lingard – all of whom can easily slot into roles within this formation as like-for-like replacements. While Kane is a proven international goalscorer, there does remain some doubts over whether or not the ‘best of the rest’ can cut it during tournament play. The formation is set to allow these players to attack, and while Southgate will be drilling them to track back, there’s a lot of flair and talent but big question marks over their team sensibilities.
Southgate’s system has offered opportunities to players who wouldn’t likely have had much of a chance of selection otherwise. Yet it does leave some bruised egos, especially in midfield. The manager has toyed with straightforward 4-4-2 during friendlies, but the result is a spookily familiar England team that looks slow and pondering. The current formation allows players to perform in roles that are near identical to what they would for their club teams, which is why it works. Alternatives aren’t really up for debate!