England going forwards… Back-three or back-four?

March 26th, 2022 | Football

Gareth Southgate has signed an extension and looks set to managed the England national team for the foreseeable future. So with that in mind let’s look forwards to the fast-approaching World Cup and what kind of system, tactical approach and formation he may look to implement…

Southgate has shown great tactical flexibility during his tenure as England manager. He’s played a variety of formations and his England side have won games in pretty much every way. There’s been counterattacking master classes like in the 3-2 win against Spain, dominant displays in big games as well as the easier qualifiers. In the EUROs where England beat a good Ukraine side 4-0 with a dominant display… His England sides have also shown good character to early setbacks, like the 2-1 win over Denmark, where England regained control after a tough start to the match.

Focusing on formations specifically there has been back-three and back-four systems. Under Gareth’s tenure there’s been these systems:

3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1.

Southgate has often selected the back-three against “tougher” opponents, but has also used it qualifiers against the what would be considered “easier” games. The other formation  Gareth has seemed to use, along with variants of the back-three, is the 4-3-3.

So what formation should be used at the World Cup. Well it’s difficult to say. I like the back-three as I believe it complements our personnel better than any back-four based system.

For example. I believe Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker perform and work better as centre-backs in a back-three system with a license to drive forwards. I also believe the system gets the best out of our full-backs like Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell. Reece James can also play as a wing-back, but has proven at Chelsea he can work as a centre-back in a back-three, whilst also being comfortable in midfield.

A back-three will allow England to play their wing-backs high up the pitch and try and get good service to Harry Kane and the other forwards playing. Sterling has shown a poachers instinct in and around the box, so would also benefit from this. England’s other forward options are less ruthless and are more intricate and focus on creating for others, rather than scoring themselves, so being able to play as inside-forwards with possession, like a 3-4-2-1 system can get the best out of players like Saka, Foden, Smith-Rowe, Mount, Sancho and Grealish.

Midfield is also an area where England are improving and I believe we now have the personnel to field a midfield two which can dominate games. Options include Rice, Philips, Henderson, Ward-Prowse and Bellingham, with youngsters like Skipp, Ramsey and Gallagher coming through. I personally like the idea of Rice and Philips, who I feel complement each other really well and have a proven track record together. However I would seriously consider Ward-Prowse, a play I believe is ridiculously underrated by football fans. Whilst he’s obviously a brilliant set-piece taker, that can distract people from his game which is a dictating, driven midfielder with leadership and an impressive passing range.

If you wanted to accommodate a midfield three along with the back-three, you could play the 3-5-2, which England had great success with at the 2018 world-cup. This would also mean pleasing a front-two. This could be Kane with a quicker and more link-up focused player to complement him. I know Kane can do the drop deep and play the pass role, but for England’s sake I think he has to be the one in the box. Another option to partner Kane up top would be a direct option like a Tammy Abraham, who posses great pace and a strikers instinct. This could allow Kane to drop deep at times and have runs in behind from Abraham, midfielders and possibly wing-backs. It also means you don’t lose that physical presence in the box. It would also mean the wing-backs,  who regardless of who plays all posses great crossing ability, will have two target men in the box. Again playing Ward-Prowse in a midfield three with him crossing the ball from slightly more central positions could be very affective.

So with all these options in mind; what do I think? Well I think when you look at the squad Gareth has chosen for the upcoming friendlies against Switzerland and the Ivory Coast, the personnel involved points to a back-three. I personally would like to see a 3-4-2-1. I believe that system gets the best out of our personnel and can give us a really strong platform to dictate games from.

Whilst I’m writing this I’d also like to say how shocked I am Fikayo Tomori hasn’t received a call-up. I really rate Tomori. He’s quick, strong and an out-and-out defender. He could play in a back-four or three comfortably and still has plenty of development in him. I like the centre-backs Southgate has called on and understand his reluctance to mess with the squad this close to a major tournament, but I do find Tomori’s absence somewhat bizarre.