World Cup run-in starts now – and Southgate has shifted to a back three

The switch against Albania feels significant, as the flexible formation fits England’s players, especially the full-backs

Players may still be suffering their post-Euro hangovers, the last of the broken glass may only just have been swept up from Wembley Way, but the World Cup is already only a year and a week away. For England the lessons of the Euros are still being assessed and assimilated and yet, already, FA officials are travelling out to Qatar to scope out training bases. The final run-in has already begun.

Suddenly a 5-0 win over a desperately disappointing Albania – how on earth had that side, even allowing for defensive injuries, beaten Hungary home and away? – is not just a jolly night out, a chance for Harry Kane to regain his form and pull level with Jimmy Greaves in the all-time scoring charts, and three more points collected towards a ticket to the finals, it becomes a vital indicator of what lies ahead.

And there was a change here, another shift in the endlessly fascinating patterns of Gareth Southgate’s use of a back three or a back four. To recap briefly‚ England used a back four throughout qualification for the 2018 World Cup, but then a back three at the finals itself. After defeat to Spain at Wembley with a back three, the back four returned for the rest of the 2018-19 Nations League and brought a 3-2 victory in Spain. It was a back four for all of Euro 2020 qualifying, which yielded a lot of goals but left England defensively vulnerable.

It was still a back four for the World Cup qualifiers played in spring this season, but by the Euro finals, a new formula had been reached: a back four in games in which England expected to dominate the ball (Croatia, Scotland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Denmark) and a back three for the games on which possession was expected to be more closely contested (Germany, Italy).

Jordan Henderson puts England 3-0 against Albania
Jordan Henderson puts England 3-0 against Albania. The central midfielders had more freedom with three centre-backs behind them. Photograph: JasonPix/Shutterstock

It had been a back four throughout World Cup qualifying until Friday, and that is why the shift feels significant. There had been experimentation in the previous qualifier, the drab 1-1 draw against Hungary at Wembley, with Phil Foden and Mason Mount both included in midfield in a 4-3-3, a performance that served as a useful reminder, for those who constantly clamour for Southgate to squeeze in more of England’s attacking riches, that having more creators doesn’t necessarily mean more creativity.

For the back three to return against an Albania was a major shift from the post-World Cup consensus. The 3-4-3 matched Albania shape for shape but that surely can’t have been the principal reason for the change against a team who were always going to sit deep and allow England the ball. After the disappointment of that Hungary performance, this felt like a return to basics. And for all the grumbling about the number of forwards who were omitted, it is a structure that is both flexible and feels as though it fits England’s players.

Most significant, perhaps, is the fact it gets the best out of England’s attacking full-backs, a strength that was exploited only infrequently during the Euros. Reece James and Ben Chilwell both excelled on Friday, Kyle Walker, Kieran Tripper and Luke Shaw can all fulfil the role and Trent Alexander-Arnold is probably more comfortable at wing-back than full-back in a system such as England’s in which there is not a high press to guard against balls played in behind him.

The central midfield pair probably have more freedom with three central defenders behind them, with two of Kalvin Phillips, Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice operating as pistons rather than slightly uncomfortably serving as a more creative third party. Golden Generation nostalgists will be excited by the prospect of a brave new era of debates about whether Rice and Henderson can play together, and there is an argument that England are better served by only one alongside the rapid passing ability of Phillips. Jude Bellingham will increasingly come into that debate, and either Mount or Foden could play there against weaker opposition.

Then there’s Kane, flanked by any two of Mount, Foden, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Emile Smith Rowe. It’s balanced and can be tweaked relatively easily to combat the strengths of an opponent. Centre-forward is the only position in which England don’t have obvious cover – the prospect of Foden as a false 9 is enticing, but possibly too difficult to enact at international level given the lack of time available to Southgate to prepare. Foden was probably the brightest element of the win, his best performance in an England shirt despite playing off the right.

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None of which matters, of course, if England’s response to taking the lead in a major game is to drop deep, the national obsession with the trenches played out through football. And as Alf Ramsey always maintained, winning the World Cup has very little to do with cuffing aside lesser opponents. Preliminaries are there to be got through: what matters is the structure and the ability to outthink, outfight and outlast big sides in the knockout stages.

That’s why the shift to the back three on Friday felt so significant, Southgate perhaps beginning the preparation for those greater challenges to come. In that sense winning 5-0 was a bonus. Far more important was that the players looked comfortable within the shape and, one poor Walker back pass aside, were in total control. The real test comes in December next year.


Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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