As England produced a real Jekyll and Hyde performance at Wembley on Saturday that questioned their capacity to progress at the World Cup in Russia, there must have been a moment in the second half against Nigeria when Gareth Southgate stood on the touchline and wondered whether he’d put all his eggs in one 3-1-4-2-shaped basket.
Southgate’s steady gearing of his England team towards the unconventional formation has been a lengthy process harking back to March last year, when he fielded the Three Lions in a 3-4-3 against world champions Germany. Modifications since, chiefly the addition of two roaming No.8s who serve a dual role in pushing on from midfield to join the forward line and instigate a high press, have only raised the level of muted optimism surrounding this England side lacking stellar names.
In the first half on Saturday, that muted optimism started to speak with a little extra verve, as England completely dominated a Nigeria team that just couldn’t get to grips with Southgate’s setup. The England players were constantly arriving in space rather than occupying it, and Nigeria’s attempts to cope with the system only pulled their own further apart.
Raheem Sterling manipulated his way into the pressure points to great effect, predominantly fed into them by Dele Alli, and by the interval the Three Lions were 2-0 up. Good value for it as well, with every player seeming to enjoy roles suiting their specific skills sets.
But from Alex Iwobi’s strike in the 47th minute, that optimism quickly began to corrode, once again returning to its state of near-silence. It was clear Gernot Rohr had given his players the hairdryer treatment at half-time, such was their response to the restarting whistle, but Nigeria’s capacity to get into the match wasn’t merely one of an elevated boldness and determination; tactically too, Rohr had created a level playing field by matching up with England’s system.
The statistics tell their own story of how effective that change was. In the first half, England took nine efforts at goal, four of which tested the goalkeeper and two of which found the back of the net; in the second, England managed just three, none of which hit the target. Nigeria, meanwhile, went from five shots in the first to seven in the second, as their possession rose from 35% to 47% – almost reaching parity with the hosts.
The consequential question is as simple as it is gravely concerning, considering how much time and effort Southgate’s devoted to perfecting a system that few other countries – if any – will enter the World Cup with; how can England transform from looking so irresistibly dominant using it against a team playing a different formation, to looking so underwhelmingly poor against the same team when they switch to the same formation? Of course, matching up is a widely used and widely heralded tactical measure.
But England’s team is far stronger than Nigeria’s on paper, and for one tactical switch to completely nullify the precious advantages of 3-1-4-2 that were so obvious and effective just minutes previous represents a glaringly exposable Achilles heel. There is no question scouts from Tunisia, Panama and Belgium – England’s World Cup Group G opponents – will have taken note of how quickly England’s work in the first half was undone by the most basic of directives from the dugout.
And that highlights perhaps the biggest side effect of Southgate’s attempts to hone his side around an incredibly specific formation; at this point, it’s not wholly clear what England’s Plan B is.
Do they modify the system to 3-4-3? Do they revert to four at the back by pushing Kyle Walker out to his natural position and swapping Kieran Trippier for a midfielder? Do they stick on Jamie Vardy to play alongside Harry Kane, whether that’s in a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2? Southgate’s failure to respond by reshaping his team, or even acknowledge how Nigeria’s half-time matching up had dramatically altered the flow of the match in such a short space of time, suggested he’s not certain what England’s next best setup is either.
Perhaps Southgate can be forgiven because of the nature of the friendly, and because no side has really matched up with England while using that system before. Under such circumstances, he has a right – if not an obligation – to see how his side cope when they’re matched up against, how much it affects their capacity to break forward, and how they respond to the change in dynamics.
That though, is perhaps where the biggest concerns are – just as Southgate stood still on the touchline, England’s players remained decisively passive, forgetting the greatest asset this Three Lions squad has.
Indeed, England’s greatest strength lays in their versatility and adaptability, and yet very few players showed any on Saturday.
Alli and Jesse Lingard are both capable of dropping deep alongside Eric Dier to change the shape of midfield, reversing the emphasis of the engine room triangle, and both are capable of moving up alongside Sterling to create a conventional 3-4-3. Likewise, Sterling could have moved deeper to get on the ball more and create a numerical advantage, just as both wing-backs could have shifted back to change the back three into a five.
In fact, the shifts didn’t even need to be so significant that Southgate’s formation was truly modified into a different system; each player taking a few yards further forward or backward to alter the emphasis in key departments would have been enough to give Nigeria a few new problems.
But pretty much every player stuck to their initial tasks, not just indiscriminate of but seemingly oblivious to how the balance of the game had changed. That’s partly a question of game intelligence and tactical awareness, but also leadership and responsibility – a lack of being amongst the biggest fears about this youthful Three Lions team heading into a major tournament.
Perhaps it will be taken as an important lesson, and perhaps Southgate didn’t change his setup specifically to prove a point. But because of their versatility, Lingard, Sterling and Alli particularly should be disappointed with how they failed to swing the game back in England’s favour after Nigeria’s second-half strike. They take up the freest and most fluid roles in this England team; they have the license to change the shape and dynamics of it.
Their failure to do so in Saturday highlights this Three Lions’ side most disturbing and disappointing flaw – a youthful naivety that seemed to stop every player from taking the second half by the scruff of the neck. If England are to progress in Russia, that mentality needs to quickly change.