Southgate seems set to go with a 3-5-2 in Russia next month. Here is a look at how the system played out in the recent friendly games against the Netherlands and Italy. This isn’t a comprehensive team analysis so much as an analysis of how the system interacted with that of two different opponents.
Promising performance against the Netherlands
A key part of England’s structure when in possession against the Netherlands was the roles of Oxlade-Chamblerlain, Lingard and Sterling. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lingard pushed high up in their respective halfspaces, and Sterling dropped from his starting position as a striker into the #10 space. So England had a presence within the Netherlands’ shape which allowed them to occupy all three central lanes of the pitch.
The more important aspect in terms of it’s effect on the Netherlands though, was that these three players would position themselves between each of the Netherlands’ four midfielders. By positioning themselves between two opponents, they can manipulate the behaviour of both, as neither defender wants to move too far away from their teammate, which would leave the attacker in too much space.
In the Netherlands’ case, this meant that the wide midfielders in their 5-4-1 defensive shape were reluctant to push up and pressure England’s side-backs, and on the occasions where they did, the increased distance between them and their centre-midfielder opened clear passing lanes to the England player positioned in the halfspace. This happened more on England’s right side, where Depay would move up to the first line of pressure, enabling Oxlade-Chamberlain to receive the ball in space.
Likewise, the spacing of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lingard and Sterling, had a similar effect on the Netherlands’ central midfielders, pinning them back and making them unwilling to step forward to press. The fact that the Netherlands’ midfield was had such a passive stance allowed England’s ‘buildup diamond’ of Walker, Stones, Maguire and Henderson to be able to circulate the ball with relatively little pressure, and any pressure situations that they did face were relatively easy to solve thanks to the passing angles offered by their diamond structure.
One of the most interesting parts of England’s possession game was the role of John Stones, who looked to step up alongside Henderson into England’s #6 space whenever possible to look for penetrative passes behind the opposition’s midfield. The presence of Henderson can even help him in this, as Henderson can attract opposition forwards in order to help open space for Stones to move into, such as in the scene below.
This role suits Stones’ playing style very well – he is England’s best player when it comes to bringing the ball out of defence and breaking opposition lines with flat, driven passes. Using him in a back three should allow him plenty of freedom to do these things, with two other centre-backs to provide defensive cover behind him in case of a ball-loss.
Going into the second half, the Netherlands’ coach Ronald Koeman made some adjustments to try and disrupt England’s possession game. They switched to a 5-2-1-2 against the ball, with the midfield now more man-oriented. Promes moved to #10 and would mark Henderson, presumably as a reaction to the amount of space Henderson was able to enjoy in the first half.
However, England were again able to cause them problems with the spacing of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lingard and Sterling. In this defensive shape, the Netherlands had a lot of problems with halfspace coverage, whereas England had very strong halfspace occupation from their side-backs and central midfielders.
This could be firstly exploited by Maguire, who was able to carry the ball forward from the left halfspace on a few occasions. The bigger issue was in midfield though, and simply stemmed from the fact that England had an overload against the Netherlands’ two central midfielders, and were well spaced enough to use it. When the Netherlands’ central midfielders tried to mark Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lingard as they pulled into the halfspaces, this created a huge distance between the two, and Sterling found space in the centre. If they tried to be more flexible and just mark the two ball-near England ‘#10’s’ (e.g. Lingard and Sterling), then England could easily find the free man with a fast switch to the opposite halfspace. Eventually this was partly solved by the Netherlands by having the centre-backs be more aggressive in stepping into midfield, which made sense anyway as England had relatively small presence on the last line.
Tougher test against Italy
England used the same basic structure again in the game against Italy, with a few personnel changes. However, this time they found it harder to manipulate Italy in their possession phase than they had against the Netherlands – Italy were more proactive in their defensive strategy, but England still managed to find a workable (but not ideal) solution.
Italy”s defensive shape was initially a 4-5-1. Jorginho, nominally a #6, many times found himself on the same line or even ahead of the central midfielders. Italy did not allow themselves to be pinned back by the positioning of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lingard and Sterling, instead taking a higher stance and using their compactness and cover shadows to prevent line-breaking passes. This was implemented fairly effectively, and England were often forced wide as a result.
England’s buildup diamond came under more pressure than in the Netherlands game. Italy’s two wingers would press England’s side-backs from their narrow starting positions, while one of the central midfielders, usually Parolo, would push out to Dier, creating 4-2-3-1 structures when pressing.
With Italy’s wingers remaining narrow in order to maintain compactness and press England’s side-backs, Italy’s full-backs were required to cover large distances on the wings in order to press England’s wing-backs.
This is where England looked to exploit Italy – Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lingard would make in-to-out diagonal runs into the space vacated by the full-backs’ pressing movements and were able to receive the ball, however they found it difficult to create anything really dangerous from these breakthroughs, and in general could rarely access the dangerous spaces inside Italy’s block.
Against the ball, England settled into a mid-low block 5-3-2, rarely getting into high pressing moments over the two games. Instead there was a focus on compactness and defending in a fairly position-oriented manner, with intense shifting from the midfield three. Having a high amount of pressure around the ball was not required, as long as penetrative passes could be prevented.
An example of a standard defensive movement can be seen above – the ball-near #8, in this case Lingard, not only moves to pressure the ball, but also curves his run as he approaches, which should help to block vertical passing lanes for the opponent on the ball. If the #8s were to just run straight to the ball without curving their run, this could allow the opponent to play forward into the space left behind them.
The ball-near striker can also be seen shifting across to block the diagonal pass into the Netherlands’ central midfielder, which should force the Netherlands to either play to the wing, or backwards. This was another aspect of England’s defensive game which was seen in both matches – the two strikers were first and foremost oriented towards preventing passes into the opposition central/defensive midfielders, rather than pressuring the ball when the opposition defenders had it.
The effect this had was slightly different in each game. Against the Netherlands, it opened up space for their centre-back, de Vrij, to step into midfield with the ball and attempt to pick out long range passes, usually switches to van Aanholt on the left, or seeking Depay running into depth. Fortunately for England, the Netherlands were fairly nonthreatening with their use of this space, but it is something worth considering if England use this system against a team with a similar 3-2 buildup structure in the World Cup.
Against Italy this was less of a problem. They used Jorginho as a single #6, so England’s strikers would be drawn to the centre slightly, and both remain fairly close to Jorginho. This allowed slightly more space for Italy’s centre-backs too, but it didn’t give them the opportunity to advance with the ball in the same way that it could against the Netherlands.
In terms of the defensive line, there were a some moments where the wing-backs would push far out to press when their direct opponent dropped into deeper positions, but for the most part, England used a flat five-chain at the back, even occasionally trying to spring offside traps on their opponents. The use of a five-chain, as opposed to a pendulating-back-four, for example, gives the midfielders a larger workload, requiring intense shifting in order to cover the width of the field. In these two games the midfield dealt with this very well, with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lingard showing great intensity. What the five-chain does offer is great stability – the defenders can maintain small distances between each other, and they should have numerical superiority on the last line.
What can be taken away from these two games? In short, England’s possession game was stronger than it has been for a while, which is partly down to structure, but also a set of players who have clearly benefited from working under coaches such as Guardiola and Pochettino. Secondly, they are defensively fairly passive, but hard to break down. Some improvement may be needed in the final third, as they were fairly reliant on crossing when it came to trying to create chances once they reached the box, however this strategy does become slightly more viable if Kane is in the team, which he wasn’t for these games.
It seems almost certain that England will use a back three in the World Cup, which is probably for the best, given some of the performances seen with a back four under Southgate. The fact that he used the final set of friendly games before announcing the squad to test his 3-5-2 system would suggest that this is the one that he will use in Russia, however it is of course possible that we see another variation of a three-at-the-back system. He could use a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1, with Henderson and Dier, or Delph, in central midfield, with two of Sterling/Lingard/Alli/Rashford behind Kane. England could start games like this, but it could also be useful for games where England are defending a lead, or any other situation where they are looking for more stability in defensive transition by adding another midfielder alongside Henderson. In the 3-5-2, it can happen that England’s ‘buildup diamond’ of the back three and defensive midfielder are the only players behind the ball, so another player may be necessary at times to prevent counter-attacks.
To finish off, I will talk briefly about my preferred lineup (within the bounds of what seems realistic) for England in the World Cup. The choice between Pickford, Butland and Pope is a fairly close one. In statistical measures, a case could be made for Butland and especially Pope in terms of shot stopping, however, Pickford is the strongest of the three in terms of distribution, which will be crucial, while also still being a decent shot-stopper. So Pickford would be my preferred goalkeeper.
Walker has shown himself as a capable side-back in a back three, and has fulfilled similar roles for Manchester City this season. He also offers a strong asset in defensive transition as a side-back due to his speed. In the centre, John Stones could be one of England’s most important players in this tournament with his ability to bring the ball out of defence and look for penetrative passes. Both Walker and Stones seem to have benefited from working under Guardiola this season, and the abilities they’ve gained in interpreting and solving pressing situations are key for England. Maguire is very capable as a left centre-back, having displayed confidence in carrying and distributing the ball from this position against the Netherlands.
With Walker at centre-back, Trippier would seem the most obvious choice for the right wing-back spot, however Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has impressed for Liverpool this season, could probably do just as well. Similarly on the left, Rose is probably England’s best player for this position, but has struggled this season with injury, so it is possible that Young starts here.
About Henderson there is not too much to say – he is probably England’s best #6 at the moment and seems almost certain to start. With Oxlade-Chamberlain sadly injured, and Lallana only named as a stand-by, Lingard and Alli are the obvious players for the #8 positions in this system. They both have great off-the-ball movement with use of blindside runs and are able to receive between lines, as well as offering goalscoring contributions.
Sterling scored 23 goals in all competitions for Manchester City this season, and can use his strengths running into depth, or dropping into the #10 space in this system. Again there is little debate to be had about his place in the team. Likewise, Kane is clearly England’s best #9, and will be crucial to their World Cup fortunes.