I’m no tactical scholar like Jonathan Wilson or Michael Cox but I’ve recently questioned whether there’s genuine logic to Gareth Southgate’s implementation of 3-1-4-2 within the England team or it’s rather a reaction to developing trends – a case of tactical peer pressure, if you will.
England have entered practically every World Cup a few years tactically behind what the rest of the beautiful game is doing, and while three-man defences took Brazil 2014 by storm soon followed by Chelsea becoming the first side to ever lift the Premier League title using 3-4-3 under Antonio Conte two seasons ago, a significant amount of time has passed since.
It would be painfully typical for an England manager to believe he’s employing a quirky, cool and modern ideas only to turn up to world football’s greatest one-month show and realise everybody else has migrated to a new and more evolved school of thought. Last season, the two most successful teams in English football – Manchester City and Liverpool – both used 4-3-3.
But that notion already feels like something of a red herring. Yes, England have only managed to beat a plucky Tunisia side and yes, even that victory contained some unnecessarily tense moments, but the Three Lions’ explosive start to the World Cup in an opening 25 minutes laden with gorgeous football, a hat-full of half chances and a handful of big chances – to paraphrase current statistical footballing nomenclature – showed exactly why Southgate’s unique and inventive setup, which isn’t being used by any other country at this summer’s tournament, is so perfect for the personnel he’s chosen within it.
One of the first things I was taught during what can be described as my first proper football training session as a young whippersnapper, as part of Charlton Athletic’s award-winning Charlton Challenge scheme, was to always look for space. The explanation was simple; if you’re in space and you have half an ounce of technical ability, you’ll have the time to do something useful with the ball. But at the elite level, simply occupying space really isn’t all that effective; arriving in space is the name of the game, especially when it can be done at speed, and that’s exactly what Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 setup is created to achieve.
It applies to almost all involved, but there are a few key examples, starting with the defence. Kyle Walker isn’t a natural centre-back, but starting in that position allows him to arrive at the right-back pocket usually without direct opposition – from there, he’s already on the front foot, and free to play his usual game. Harry Maguire too, is primarily a centre-half but one who has played portions of his career in central midfield, the area where Southgate’s formation obliges him to push into and force his way forward from there. During the second half against Tunisia, the Leicester City defender’s marauding runs became a recurring theme.
It’s a similar case with Ashley Young; while he showed newfound defensive qualities for Manchester United last season, the veteran wide-man is still a winger in his most rudimentary form. For England, the 32-year-old starts out at wing-back but becomes most effective when he arrives late in those traditional winger positions, using his momentum to take a touch inside and whip right-footed reverse deliveries into the box. That kind of cross almost lead to a Jesse Lingard goal on Monday night, but the Red Devils midfielder couldn’t make the right connection.
But the area where this theme of arriving rather than occupying becomes most prevalent is in midfield; if selection policy were down to them, Dele Alli and Lingard would choose to be No.10s every time. Instead though, they start at No.8 buzzing around either side of Jordan Henderson, so – as we saw in those first 25 minutes against Tunisia – when they make forward runs from the engine room, they end up bursting at speed into the No.10 pockets, whether that’s centrally or along the two channels.
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Suddenly, rather than receiving the ball as a No.10 and having to try and turn a marker to make something happen – which was a common source of frustration during Alli’s early England appearances under Southgate – the Tottenham star and his Manchester United counterpart are picking up passes as they gallop towards the deep-lying midfielders. They already have the momentum to make a one-touch pass and keep the move flowing or weave their way around defenders with delicate feints to either side. In essence, they’re already moving at pace with the ball, while those trying to stop them remain somewhat static, trying to work out when best to confront the situation.
There are some key exceptions though, counterweights to balance out all the front-footed movement. Perhaps the most obvious are Kieran Trippier, a right-back who ends up playing further forward but therefore brings much greater defensive awareness to what would otherwise be a right midfield berth, and Jordan Henderson. He often ends up arriving on the ball a little further forward than you’d expect of a holding option, momentarily reviving the box-to-box style that marked his first few seasons at Anfield, but the Liverpool man’s primary duty is to give England some form of control in the engine room despite so much of the midfield bombing on.
In contrast, perhaps the most surprising balancing act is Harry Kane, which obliges a debate over whether – despite scoring twice on Monday – this England system actually gets best use from him. The Tottenham striker’s most stunning performances last season, particularly against Real Madrid and Juventus in the Champions League, involved him carrying the ball towards opposition defences, revealing a new and more dynamic element to his game.
But within the confines of this England setup, it’s actually Kane who tends to drop deep, allowing Alli, Lingard and Raheem Sterling to make runs around him. Kane’s more than capable of feeding those players in – creative passing is probably the most underrated part of his game – but it arguably takes away from his capacity to find the net. His two goals from set pieces aside, the 24-year-old took just one effort at goal against Tunisia.
The true impact of that, however, will come to the fore in the coming games. Southgate will argue using Kane in that way facilitates so many more players that the collective positive far outweighs individual losses. Right now, he certainly has a point – as the opening round of fixtures have proved, few major teams have turned up at this World Cup with a formation that gets such a large section of their starting XI arriving in space on the front foot in their favoured positions in quite the same way. Perhaps Kane is the inevitable casualty, but as long as he scores goals few will complain.