England’s win over Slovenia has booked the Three Lions their place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
With qualification wrapped up and warm up matches to come against hand-picked opponents, Southgate has the opportunity to rotate some of his players and try out different systems in order to find the perfect blend ahead of next summer’s World Cup.
Scoring goals has been an issue for England at recent major tournaments. They managed four from as many games at Euro 2016, two in three games at the World Cup in 2014 and five in four games at Euro 2012.
However, Southgate has some extremely exciting, in-form attacking players to build his squad around, including Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Tottenham pair, Harry Kane and Dele Alli, all of whom are 24 or under.
The quartet are already key players for England despite their ages but how can Southgate mould his side to get the best out of them? Here are three potential ways he could go about it.
An issue that England have had for many years is that managers have often played players out of position in order to cram the best talents into the team.
Looking at the current squad, England’s best players can be found towards the top end of the pitch but playing them in their best positions shouldn’t be too much of an issue for Southgate.
With Dele missing England’s first game against Lithuania through suspension (after flipping the bird at Kyle Walker, apparently…) Southgate could be tempted to play a 4-3-3 that would see Sterling, Rashford and Kane all playing in their regular club positions.
Strangely, Sterling has barely received any recognition for his form this season, despite the fact he has scored five goals in six Premier League matches and ranks top in their squad for take-ons completed with 11.
Sterling’s best performances have come on the right wing while Marcus Rashford has predominantly lined up on the left for Manchester United, who like City, are still unbeaten in the Premier League after seven games.
Jose Mourinho has rotated Rashford with Anthony Martial in virtually every game, but Rashford has still had a big impact for his side, scoring twice and registering three assists from the left flank.
Up front, meanwhile, Southgate has the luxury of being able to call upon one of the deadliest finishers in Europe right now in Harry Kane, who scored 13 goals for club and country in September and will captain England against Slovenia.
Another issue that England managers have faced is getting their players to perform as well for their country as they do for their clubs and part of the problem comes down to tactics, with players being used in different roles than they are accustomed to.
Over the past year, 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 or 3-5-2 has become an increasingly utilised tactic in the Premier League, particularly at the top end of the division with Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester City and Arsenal, all regularly playing with a back three.
It’s a system that has really got the best out of Dele at Spurs as it has allowed him to occupy a shadow striker role off Kane, where he can make untracked runs into the penalty area to score his goals.
Since the start of last season, Dele has scored 20 Premier League goals – a total that is only bettered by four players in the division – and as a result, using him in the position where he causes maximum damage makes a great deal of sense.
Sterling is also accustomed to playing in that system for not only Manchester City but also his former club Liverpool, playing nominally as a wing-back but more often further forward as part of the attacking three.
With Dele’s intelligent movement and eye for goal as well as Sterling’s raw pace, England would have a potentially devastating supporting cast behind Kane, who frankly could score while playing in any formation.
Furthermore, Rashford, while not playing in that formation for his club, has the tactical intelligence, positional awareness and creativity to provide an alternative option in any of the three slots.
3. 4-4-2 diamond
Alternatively, Southgate may be tempted to try out a 4-4-2 diamond in order to relieve some of the goalscoring burden placed on Kane’s shoulders by providing him with a support striker who can share his workload.
Although Rashford has almost exclusively been used as a winger during Jose Mourinho’s time in charge, he is a striker by trade and it was in that position where he first made his explosive breakthrough under Louis van Gaal.
A partnership of Kane and Rashford would have the potential to be absolutely devastating. As a pair, they would have everything, with Kane’s brilliant overall game complemented by Rashford’s explosive pace and directness in the final third.
Despite playing out wide for United this season, Rashford has shown his aptitude for scoring goals with three in nine games in the Premier League and Champions League, while he has a reasonable conversion rate of 17.6% across both competitions.
Kane has been in truly devastating form this calendar year, scoring 36 club goals in total, which is only bettered by Lionel Messi (45) in Europe’s top five leagues. Following a slow start to the season, he has sprung into life recently, scoring five times in two Champions League fixtures and managing a further six from his last four Premier League meetings.
Roaming behind them would be Dele, who although not a natural No.10 in a creative sense, can conjure up a chance out of nothing and he has an excellent on-pitch relationship with his Spurs colleague. Even in his absence, Sterling could step in to fill the void and play as a free-roaming attacking midfielder, just as he did to devastating effect when Liverpool almost won the league a few years back.