One of the defining features of Gareth Southgate’s tenure as England manager to date has been his effective use of a five-at-the-back system, featuring three ball-playing centre-backs between two attack-minded wing-backs.
This tactic arose due to the strengths and weaknesses of the players at Southgate’s disposal. England boast an abundance of top class full/wing-backs and centre-backs who are both comfortable and effective on the ball.
Add to that a lack of out and out wingers and a dearth of top quality central midfielders and a back five quickly becomes the set up that makes the most sense.
The strong base that this formation provides also encourages the patient, possession-based style of build up play that the manager is continually trying to implement and hone in his team. The likes of Harry Maguire and John Stones are exemplary passing centre-backs, whilst in Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Luke Shaw and Danny Rose, Southgate can call upon some of the finest wing-backs in the game.
With Rob Holding, Alfie Mawson and Aaron Wan-Bissaka impressing at club level, and naturally suited to the style of football England play at the back, the future of this system looks assured. However, if the Three Lions are to build upon their recent successes, then there are some deficiencies that must be addressed.
The additional centre-back that this tactic demands means that England are often outnumbered in the middle of the park. Due to this, Southgate’s midfield pair must be mobile and efficient. In Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, England have the requisite reserves of stamina and energy to call upon. When it comes to breaking down stubborn opposition defences, though, the aforementioned midfielders tend to be found wanting. In order to progress against tougher opponents, Southgate has to be able to coax more creativity out of his midfield contingent.
Southgate must also find a way of getting the best out of Raheem Sterling. Without true wingers, the Manchester City man has been forced into a more central role and has so far struggled to prove effective. At his best, Sterling is a player capable of having a huge impact for England, so he must be allowed to thrive for his national team.