Gareth Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 system is perhaps the most innovative formation we’ve seen at the 2018 World Cup so far this summer. Against certain opposition, it’s given England a unique edge, exploiting the mobility of key offensive-minded players, while generating a style of football that has been far beyond what the Three Lions managed in previous tournaments despite having arguably superior players available.
Throw in how surprisingly unintimidating England’s potential opponents are on course to the final, especially when compared to the other side of the knockout tree, and an inevitable sense of optimism has grown around Southgate’s young side over the last few days. But how does England’s 3-1-4-2 stack up against the rest of the competition in this side of the draw? Who will it rip apart, and which countries are well equipped to exploit its idiosyncrasies?
Football FanCast’s tactical power rankings give an insight into who England should and shouldn’t look forward to facing as they eye a run to the World Cup final…
Wouldn’t there be something deliciously poetic in England being eliminated from the World Cup by a side that essentially play 4-4-2? In real terms, Sweden’s formation becomes more of a 4-4-1-1 with former Sunderland man Ola Toivonen tucking in behind veteran target man Marcus Berg. But the real fear here is how England’s fancy football holds up against a far less ambitious, far more agricultural side that are used to playing without the ball for long periods.
Sweden averaged just 41% possession in the Group Stages and scored only twice from open play, but managed to keep two clean sheets in the process. Although Tunisia dug deep, England haven’t really been faced with that kind of test yet – a highly physical and resilient side that will be relatively comfortable playing the game on the back foot.
Throw in England’s nightmare exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of another Scandinavian nation and the manner in which Denmark’s long throws upset Croatia so greatly, and Sweden could inspire a bit of an upset against the Three Lions.
A talented team on paper but Switzerland’s exclusive use of 4-2-3-1 now feels a little out of date. Three-man defences are very much a reaction to that kind of setup and England’s wide players should be able to pin Switzerland’s full-backs relatively deep, which immediately cancels out one of their chief creative threats and technical talents in No.3 Ricardo Rodriguez.
Xherdan Shaqiri is their talisman though, having scored and assisted in the Group Stages, and his penchant for drifting inside from the right wing will inevitably create some confusion over which England player should be picking him up – Ashley Young at wing-back, Jordan Henderson in deep midfield or Harry Maguire from left centre-half.
However, from the 15 Premier League goals Shaqiri contributed to for Stoke last season, just one was against a team employing a three-man defence. If the statistics are anything to go by, good communication between Henderson, Maguire and Young should be enough to keep Shaqiri out of the game for long periods.
Russia have defied expectations so far at the World Cup and there are two key reasons England could become another big scalp for the host nation in the coming rounds. First and foremost, they’re one of the most direct teams at the tournament with an average of 64 long passes per match, and it remains to be seen how an England back three modest in height will be able to cope with that kind of aerial bombardment, especially Kyle Walker at the back post. He could end up in a disastrous mismatch with Artem Dzyuba.
Secondly, from the five teams England could face before the tournament’s end, Russia are the only one to have already employed a three-man defence (albeit more of a five-man defence in practice) at the World Cup. That’s proved to be a bit of an achilles heel for Southage’s 3-1-4-2 setup: it inspired Nigeria’s second-half comeback in the first warm up friendly and was the formation Belgium used, albeit both managers setting out weakened teams, during England’s only Group Stage loss.
Russia miss out from featuring higher in the tactical power rankings though, for one key reason. They’ve already conceded twice from set pieces whereas England are one of the tournament’s most potent sides in that regard – netting four from dead ball situations in their opening two games.
Croatia were amongst the most dominant teams in the World Cup’s Group Stages and that centred around the immense quality in their midfield, particularly through Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and the wide men. As the tournament’s progressed, Croatia have done more and more to try and get Modric in the game further forward where his delicate passes can prove decisive, and that should be England’s biggest concern as well.
While the Three Lions have three centre-halves to pick off those kinds of balls behind the defence, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli will need to sit deep and help Henderson out to ensure Croatia’s midfield doesn’t quickly take control of the game, while the wingers both like to drift inside – which could create real problems between centre-back and wing-back in the channels.
The other side to that argument, though, is how Alli and Lingard could find real joy in making runs off the back of Modric and Rakitic. Both are forward-thinking players and although they’ll likely be anchored by a more defensive midfielder, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida will struggle if Lingard and Alli get the chance to run at them.
Colombia’s formation bears similarity to Switzerland but some key differences and superior quality of personnel should make them more of a test for England, which showed in their 3-0 win over Poland as the South American side lined up with a like-minded three-man defence.
Perhaps the most crucial of those is Juan Cuadrado – whereas Switzerland’s wide players look to cut inwards, the one-time Chelsea winger has spent most of the World Cup hugging the touchline. That will give Young some key decisions to make in regards to the positions he takes up and how much he looks to push forward, and Trippier could end up facing similar problems on the opposite flank depending on who starts there. James Rodriguez likes to drift into midfield, but potential understudy Jose Izquierdo is more of a winger-forward whose initial instinct is to try and score goals.
That being said, should Raheem Stering drop deep as expected to form a diamond in the engine room, Jordan Henderson could get some joy as the spare man – especially if he can replicate the fantastic passing range he showed against Panama and Tunisia. But considering both of these teams have very similar strengths, particularly their ability to press high and exploit the mobility of the front four on the counter-attack, it looks set to be an incredibly open game.