Football Features

“A back three maximises England’s strengths” – Winners & losers if Southgate switches up defence

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:15, 14 October 2019

England shook up the world in 2018 by actually being one of the most entertaining sides to watch at the World Cup.

The Three Lions had, for years, been a super talented and super stodgy side who no one but the masochistic and/or inebriated enjoyed watching, especially at tournaments. Yet Gareth Southgate and his young, likable squad (and Jamie Vardy) changed all that with a series of energetic and bright displays.

The key engine behind that brightness? A 3-5-2 formation that allowed Southgate to maximise the strengths of the squad he had available. All fast play, forward-thinking and set-piece splendour. Of course, the system was very open and risky, and the squad was so thin that an injury to Harry Kane – though it was never officially confirmed – really slowed down the bite in attack and ultimately led to their elimination. But this team was fun and won many, many fans.

Fast forward a year and a bit and England are back in need of a similar shot in the arm. It’s not just that they lost their first competitive qualification match for a decade – since Ukraine beat them 1-0 in October 2009 – but the team has lost a lot of the spark it once had. It’s now a more ordinary side lit up by the individual genius of its attacking players, notably Raheem Sterling.

This has led to people wondering if the back three could make a return. And when recently asked if he would be able to implement the system ahead of Euro 2020, Southgate responded: “I think so. I think players take in tactical concepts very quickly, especially top players.”

But which of the current group of players would benefit from a return to the back three? Not just those in the current squad to face Bulgaria, but anyone available for selection as an England international. We’ve taken a look.

Winner: Fikayo Tomori

When Frank Lampard took charge of Chelsea this summer people expected him to give youth a chance, but not many expected Fikayo Tomori to be one of those players. At least, not right away anyway. But injury setbacks in defence opened the door and Tomori kicked the thing down, being one of Chelsea’s most impressive players this season, in turn earning an England call-up.

His problem, however, is that he is a left-sided centre-back. And at international level, in a back four, this puts him squarely in contention with Harry Maguire, and that’s a battle he’s going to lose. A back three creates a new opening however, and Tomori can slide in to the left of Maguire with the Manchester United man anchoring the defence from the middle position. This would allow Tomori to provide dynamic cover in the wide areas of defence and brilliantly compliment Maguire. It could be the making of him.

Loser: Kyle Walker

Kyle Walker has had a rough time of things lately, losing his spot as England’s starting right-back to any one of a bevy of other options. But the thing is, in a back four the sheer solidity he offers always sees him in with a shout to regain his place. With a back three that’s not the case; as Walker is more limited in attack than Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier there’s no way he ousts them as wing-back.

At the World Cup this ended up with Walker playing centre-back, but the growing nature of England’s centre-back pool means that, when healthy, the Three Lions have specialist centre-backs to use there rather than having to squeeze Walker in. Moreover if Southgate did want to add a more mobile and athletically supreme skill-set then Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a younger more defensively impervious version of Walker. The United man is a true shutdown defender, rendering Walker vestigial on basically every front.

Winner: John Stones

John Stones formed a supreme partnership with Harry Maguire – and Kyle Walker – at the World Cup, anchoring the back three from the middle as the more dynamic players drove the ball forward. Injury and poor form have cost him his spot in a back four and one could reasonably argue that, as wobbly as he looks, you probably wouldn’t pick him to start again.

However, a back three would afford Stones the chance to once again sit between two more athletic and dynamic defensive talents. Position Stones between Maguire and Joe Gomez, or Gomez and Tomori, and you have a defensive unit that can make use of Stones’ impeccable reading of the game without having to worry that his concentration will slip and an opponent will get in behind him. In short, a back three could be a new lease of life for Stones.

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Loser: Declan Rice

Declan Rice is a really solid defensive midfielder. He’s a reliable ball-winning midfielder who can pass it a bit. He’s nothing revelatory with the ball (making nicknames like the Pilau Pirlo and Basmati Busquets sadly inaccurate) but he is really good at winning it back. In a 4-3-3 where both full-backs push up high this makes him useful cover in defence, but in a 3-5-2 it makes him superfluous.

With three centre-backs, having a pure ball-winner like Rice hold midfield is just an extra layer of defensive protection that only serves to slow down the attack. This means that, even against good sides, you’re better off having someone who can pass in there (think Jordan Henderson vs. Eric Dier at the World Cup).

Harry Winks has struggled to displace Rice in a 4-3-3, but in a 3-5-2 or even a 3-4-2-1 he would be able to do so with ease because the Spurs man is so much better with the ball at his feet that he would allow England to move the ball quicker. And if England are chasing the dragon of 2018 then quick ball movement is going to be imperative.

Winner: The fans

England aren’t as much fun as they were at the 2018 World Cup. There. Now it’s been said. The Three Lions were so much fun to watch in that back three, flummoxing opponents with fast attacking play.

Yes they beat weaker teams but if you’ve ever watched England at a tournament before you know they’ve made something of a reputation for not only making the dispatching of weaker sides a genuine problem but also rendering it an artless spectacle that no one wants to watch despite it theoretically being something they love, like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. A switch back to 3-5-2 would make every game a rollercoaster again.

Loser: Opponents

In addition to making England fun, the 3-5-2 would also make England good. Very good, in fact. Much better than they are in the 4-3-3. See, a 4-3-3 depends hugely on having a strong midfield, one that can control games. Otherwise the attack is inadequately supplied and worse, the defence has no protection. England have run into this problem on more than one occasion with their 4-3-3.

The way England’s 3-5-2 functioned, the midfield only has to drive the ball forward at speed. England have plenty of midfielders capable of doing that (less so those able to control a game) and with the addition of Trent Alexander-Arnold and his supreme ball delivery, a Raheem Sterling that can actually score goals, the lethal game-changing skill of Jadon Sancho and the midfield goalscoring of Mason Mount. England 2020 in a 3-5-2 would be so much more formidable than their 2018 variants.

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