A review of England’s performance against the Netherlands and Switzerland as they went on to finish third in the inaugural UEFA Nations League finals.
Netherlands 3-1 England (AET)
England build-up disrupted by Netherlands man-oriented pressing
England under Southgate remain committed to trying to establish game control with a clean build-up game from the back, moving away from the direct, risk-averse football seen from England teams in the past. Against the Netherlands though, they ran into difficulties progressing the ball through midfield against their opponents’ man-oriented pressing.
With Holland starting in a 4-2-3-1 without the ball and England attacking in a 4-3-3, the Netherlands were able to match England man for man in midfield with de Jong marking Delph, de Roon with Barkley and Wijnaldum assigned to the England #6 Declan Rice. The Netherlands’ wingers normally tucked in slightly to force England outside. Depay was then essentially 1v2 against the England centre-backs. England therefore found it relatively easy for their centre-backs to get time to bring the ball out from defence as one of them was usually free against the lone presence of Depay in the first line of pressing.
With the Netherlands’ defensive scheme though, all of their immediate passing options were tightly marked. This is where England met the fundamental question for England in possession, which was about how to free the midfielders from their markers, or bypass the midfield cleanly to bring them into play further up the pitch.
The marking assignments of the Netherlands midfielders often meant that there were quite large spaces between them as they tracked their opponent, opening up the ‘#10 zone’ for England i.e. the space between Holland’s central midfielders and centre-backs. Barring select occasions, England didn’t use this space to its full potential as a way of bypassing the Netherlands press. Having pulled the Holland midfield apart, there was the opportunity for England forwards to drop into this #10 space to show for the ball to feet and facilitate third man combinations, bringing midfielders into play.
Such third man combinations are key against man-oriented defences, as being man-marked opens the possibility to drag opposition defenders away to open passing lanes to higher players. There is then the opportunity to run off of the blindside of defenders as they turn to face the ball as it bypasses them. As such, England may have benefited from trying to use this tool in a more focused way than they did, even though it was challenging as the Holland central defenders defended the space between the lines quite aggressively by stepping forward out of the backline.
Other dismarking techniques such as positional rotations again could’ve been better applied. As it was, the England midfield was often somewhat static, without many smart and coordinated methods of freeing themselves to receive in good conditions to play forward.
England found limited success breaking through on the wings, where on a couple of occasions Sancho freed himself from his full-back with a double movement to receive. There were also a couple of occasions where England full-backs were forced to dribble inside, and ended up solving the pressure by driving into the spaces between the Netherlands midfielders as they marked their direct opponents.
Netherlands play through England pressing
When in possession, the Netherlands’ 4-2-3-1 could often end up moving into a chain of three at the back, or at least creating diamond structures between the centre-backs and double pivot as one of de Jong or de Roon dropped to the side of, or in between the centre-backs, and the other stayed in the #6 position in the second line of build-up.
On rare occasions, they would actually build with a 3+2 structure at the back, as Blind tucks in as a 3rd centre-back with de Roon and de Jong in front, and Babel or another attacker remaining wide. More commonly though, Blind pushed up as an attacking full-back to hold the width on the left, and Dumfries did likewise on the right. The front four generally floated in central areas within England’s defensive shape. They occupied the spaces behind England’s #8s in particular very strongly and interchangeably. Depay as the striker was quite mobile and floated into wide areas as well as dropping between the lines.
England’s pressing was mainly oriented zonally in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape. As alluded to, Holland occupied the spaces behind England’s #8s when they had the ball, and this was an area they were able to exploit accordingly to good effect, due to the pressing behaviour of England’s #8s Delph and Barkley and the way in which Holland were able to manipulate their positioning. An example to illustrate this can be seen below.
Basically England’s #8s would push out of the midfield line when the ball was in front of them with the centre-backs or deep midfielders of Holland. The Netherlands would then find ways to play around them and expose the spaces left behind them, as the use of cover shadows by the England #8s was relatively weak, leaving themselves in poor positions to prevent being bypassed by simple passes between the lines.
The Netherlands often ended up playing long from deep build-up situations from their own goalkeeper, but once they established possession higher up the pitch, especially in the second half, England found it difficult to dispossess them.
The Netherlands’ build-up diamond comprised of the two centre-backs and deep midfielders, and they were relatively good at creating angles to quickly resolve England’s attempts at pressure and exploit spaces left behind the England midfield. de Jong stood out for his general performance in dictating the game when his team has the ball. He was key in manipulating the England #8s out of position and playing around them to access his teammates between the lines with smart use of his body shape, short dribbles and passes to manipulate the position of opposition midfielders.
Southgate’s formation switch
After de Ligt scored the Netherlands’ equaliser to make it 1-1, Southgate made a change in system. Henderson came on to replace Delph, and he partnered Rice in central midfield in a 4-2-3-1. Barkley moved over to a wide left position, substitutes Lingard and Kane were on the right of midfield and centre-forward respectively, while Sterling operated as a #10.
In the immediate period after the change, England gained more of a foothold in terms of ball possession after being pinned back by Holland for most of the second half. This was probably at least in part because of the change of game state meaning that Holland no longer needed to chase the game as they did when they were behind, but the change of shape from England also had implications for Holland’s defensive scheme.
Previously, Holland’s man-oriented defensive scheme had been simplified somewhat by the fact that nominally, their 4-2-3-1 starting formation matched up with that of England in their 4-3-3, meaning that the midfielders could simply mark their direct opponents without having to deviate too heavily from their initial structure.
England’s new system had Rice and Henderson in the second line of build-up with either one of them drifting wide of the centre-backs to make angles to receive. The three attacking midfielders came narrower and tried to occupy spaces between the Holland defence and midfield lines with the full-backs now responsible for providing width higher up the pitch, although Walker still sometimes tucked in as a third centre-back, which meant that the right-wing at these times was not consistently occupied, forcing England down the left.
This meant for example that van de Beek who now occupied the #10 position for Holland now had two players to deal with around England’s #6 space, where previously he would’ve been able to simply mark Rice as the sole England #6. With an extra player in the second line, Holland’s double pivot seemed slightly indecisive about whether to step up and mark the spare England midfielder in the second line or maintain their coverage of the passing lanes into Barkley, Sterling and Lingard who were now drifting in advanced midfield positions.
Holland, then, were forced into a more passive defensive stance. The change in England formation, the new game state, and possibly fatigue coming into the last ten minutes of the game likely all factored into this. Either way, England found some improvement in the last 10-15 minutes of normal time after conceding the equaliser and had a potential winning goal disallowed after VAR found Lingard to have been in an offside position.
The change in shape also made England a bit more solid against the ball when it came to preventing Holland from penetrating through central zones in midfield. Rather than having two #8s pressing and leaving exposed space behind them, they now had Henderson and Rice in deeper midfield positions screening the space between the lines which helped to stop Holland opening up these spaces between the lines as they had for much of the game.
The extra time was of course defined by the individual mistakes England made while trying to play out from the back which gave Holland two goals to make it 3-1 at the final whistle.
The Netherlands were also able to stabilise their defensive scheme somewhat after initially having some problems against the changed formation from England. In extra time Holland’s central midfielders shielded their defence zonally as well as situationally marking England attacking midfielders that came into their zone. With the lead they were able to defend deeper and soak up pressure to release the likes of Depay and Promes on the counter, and England were not able to undo the damage they’d inflicted upon themselves with individual errors.
Switzerland 0-0 England (England win on penalties)
Southgate’s hybrid system
After England faced problems in their 4-3-3 in the game against Holland, Southgate decided to tweak the blueprint of the line-up that ended that game in a 4-2-3-1. Against Switzlerland, the system England started with could be described as a mix of a 4-3-1-2 and 4-2-3-1 due to the way in which Lingard and Sterling interpreted their roles.
Lingard essentially played as a mix between right #8 (or left #8 as him and Delph often swapped sides) in a 4-3-1-2 and as one of three #10s in a narrow 4-2-3-1. In possession, he could sometimes appear in the line of three alongside Dier and Delph, especially dropping into deep halfspace areas to balance the full-back on the same side as he moved forward. But he also spent a lot of time roaming between the lines alongside the likes of Alli, Sterling and Kane as one might see in a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 with three #10s, such as that seen in the closing stages against Holland.
Lingard, Alli, Sterling and to a smaller extent Kane were very interchangeable and played with a lot of positional freedom in possession. All of them could also drop into deeper zones, especially wide or in the halfspaces alongside Dier and Delph as described with Lingard in the previous paragraph. With their flexible positioning the four of them generally occupied the space between Switzerland’s defence and midfield quite strongly.
Aside from occasional forays into higher zones, Dier and Delph operated often as part of the rest-defence when England had the ball. They often dropped alongside the centre-backs in the halfspaces to escape the pressing of Switzerland’s strikers, and England would look to construct attacks from these lower pressure zones around Switzerland’s narrow midfield and forward line in their 5-3-2. They could also use these wide zones to draw out Switzerland midfielders into wide areas, opening space to play into the space between the lines, which England occupied strongly as previously mentioned.
Once they reached the final third England often shifted the ball wide as Switzerland’s five man defence gave them a lot of coverage on the last line with small gaps between the defenders making it difficult to play in behind. The delivery of Trent Alexander-Arnold from wide positions was England’s main threat created a handful of chances from crosses that England could’ve scored from.
The introduction of Walker at left-back as substitute for Rose was also interesting. Whereas Rose had mostly occupied the wing for England, Walker played the role differently, often drifting inside into midfield zones as an inverted full-back, or making a chain of three with Gomez and Maguire. When he did this, the left wing would then be occupied flexibly by Lingard or Sterling.
Out of possession
England had most of the possession, so not too much was seen of Switzerland’s possession game. Switzerland built with a fairly standard 3-5-2. Xhaka stayed deep as the lone #6, while Fernandes and Freuler tried to push higher to support the forwards, as did the wing-backs.
England started out in a 4-3-1-2 defensively, where Alli would usually mark Xhaka quite tightly. Sterling and Kane would then be either side of him to pressure the wide centre-backs. Alli’s marking of Xhaka often forced the centre-backs to look immediately for more direct options, from which England were usually able to clear up the second balls.
England could again transition into a 4-2-3-1 in pressing though, most commonly when the ball was on Lingard’s side with one of the wide centre-backs where he would push up to put pressure on, Sterling would drop into a left midfield position and Kane remained central.
The 4-2-3-1 in pressing was usually temporary though, mostly in higher pressing situations. If England had to drop deeper, Sterling wouldn’t track back on his side, whereas Lingard again became an #8, tracking the diagonal runs of Switzerland’s #8s behind the England’s full-backs, for example.
England’s showed contrasting performances in their two Nations League finals games. Against Holland, they were outmatched tactically for much of the game, took time to make changes, and probably deserved to lose even though the crucial goals were due to individual mistakes in the end.
Against Switzerland, Southgate’s showed a different, flexible system in a game where England dominated and almost certainly deserved to win in normal time, but eventually ended up needing penalties to secure the win.