If there was one crucial lesson for Gareth Southgate to take from England’s 2-1 win over Nigeria on Saturday, it came in the form of how the Three Lions failed to replicate their first half dominance in the second after the Super Eagles matched up with their 3-1-4-2 formation.
The unique system seems to get England’s best players in their best positions and best-suited roles, but it’s sudden lack of impact after Nigeria’s tactical switch – quickly resulting in an Alex Iwobi goal – represents a significant Achilles heel.
Group G opponents Belgium, Panama and Tunisia will no doubt have taken note, so it’s vital Southgate finds before the World Cup what he failed to on Saturday – a simple, viable and effective Plan B that England can switch to within games. With that in mind, Football FanCast outline four suggested solutions…
The simplest and subtlest formation change Southgate can make in-game, modifying his 3-1-4-2 system to a more conventional 3-4-3 taken straight out of the Antonio Conte handbook. Dele Alli will be the key lynchpin in that, pushing up from the midfield to make a three-man forward line alongside Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
That wide forward berth saw the 6 foot 2 attacker nab 18 Premier League goals for Tottenham in 2016/17, so his dual role which would instigate the change in system could well have massive impact on the Three Lions’ chances.
The change is just enough to give the opposition defence a different kind of problem by changing the emphasis of attack with extra width. And perhaps most appealingly of all from Southgate’s perspective, the simple rearrangement won’t require any substitutions.
Southgate’s found real success setting up his England side with a back three. In fact, the Three Lions have conceded just five goals during the eight games in which Southgate’s fielded one, facing some formidable opposition in that time, but it shouldn’t be stuck with to the point it becomes dogmatic.
Plenty of the England squad have been playing 4-3-3 at club level this season so Southgate certainly has the components for it – although changing in-game will require replacing (most likely) Kieran Trippier with an attacking player such as Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, with Kyle Walker returning to his natural right-back berth.
The big positive of this setup though is that the structure of the midfield remains largely the same, Alli and Jesse Lingard operating as free No.8s just in front of Eric Dier.
Another Plan B that keeps England’s back three in tact but requires some structural changes elsewhere, particularly in the midfield.
Fabian Delph and Liverpool youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold can come off the bench to complete an engine room diamond that maximises their versatility as both central midfielders and full-backs – marshalling the wide midfield berths (similar to the inside full-back roles Pep Guardiola often utilised last season) to allow Southgate to employ two out-and-out wingers rather than wing-backs.
It’s a peculiar setup that other countries will struggle to work out but represents an incredibly bold call on Southgate’s part, not least because it will require three substitutions from the team that started against Nigeria.
If there’s one department where England boast both superstar quality and impressive depth, it’s undoubtedly in attack. Harry Kane’s one of the best strikers in the world, Jamie Vardy’s scoring record has been consistent over the last three years and Danny Welbeck, Rashford and Sterling are all quick, versatile forwards.
With that in mind then, perhaps England’s Plan B should be as simple as getting as many of their forwards on the pitch as possible. There are various dimensions for this, but 4-2-4 is probably the best bet, with Trippier and Lingard coming off for Rashford and Vardy. It does leave the midfield worryingly open, but sometimes fighting fire with fire is the safest strategy.
So, England fans, which setup do you see as Southgate’s strongest Plan B? Let us know by voting below…