Football Features

England tactics: Why Gareth Southgate should return to a back three vs Denmark

By Chris Smith

Published: 12:08, 6 July 2021

For the second time in as many competitions, England are preparing for a semi-final. This major tournament business is easy, isn’t it?

The Three Lions brushed Ukraine aside with an imperious 4-0 win in the quarter-finals but, to even reach that stage, they needed a tactical masterstroke in the round-of-16.

Heading into the landmark clash at Wembley against Germany, Gareth Southgate pondered whether or not to revert to a three-man centre-back system, matching up with Joachim Löw to nullify the considerable threat of his wing-backs, Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens.


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During a 4-2 group-stage win over Portugal, Germany used these two to great effect, pushing the pair high up the pitch and covering behind with centre-backs Matthias Ginter and Antonio Rudiger. The end result was a relentless wave of attacks that pinned back Portugal’s Raphael Guerreiro and Nelson Semedo with both Gosens and Kimmich grabbing an assist, while the former also scored a well-deserved goal. Between them, the pair created four of Germany’s nine chances on the day.

Prior to the Wembley clash, Southgate was accused of being overly cautious and showing Germany too much respect, but his plan worked to perfection. Barring a Thomas Muller opening that came from an English mistake, Die Mannschaft created precious little, with Kimmich laying on just one chance for his teammates, while Gosens managed none and was withdrawn in the 87th minute.

Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw — backed by Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire behind them — pinned the German wing-backs and, as the below event count for ball recoveries, tackles and interceptions shows, the battle for supremacy in this game was well and truly won on the flanks.

After the match, Jose Mourinho said of Southgate’s decision: “England have had three clean sheets playing with a back four and then you play against this Germany team and I felt deeply, I analysed the Germany vs Portugal game very deeply and Germany killed Portugal because they played with a back four and they couldn’t control the wing-backs, period.

“Today, when England decided to play with three at the back, it’s not like they don’t have the tactical knowledge and the coach just decided to do it.

“They worked really hard and the team was very, very solid. We have Trippier closing down the space on the inside, the wing-backs won their duels, Shaw controlled Kimmich and Trippier did the same, the two midfielders were giants, everybody worked really hard for the team.

“The geometry made the players feel very comfortable, made Shaw and Trippier perform in a very solid way. I think it was a very good decision by Gareth to play this way.”

What about Denmark?

Of course, Ukraine fielded three centre-backs during their last-eight clash with England, but Southgate chose to revert back to a 4-2-3-1 system. With all due respect to Andriy Shevchenko’s side, they simply lack the raw talent of Germany and went into the match in Rome off the back of a gruelling extra-time battle with Sweden in the previous round. On this occasion, Southgate opened the throttle and let some of his best attacking talents loose on a tired team that had already peaked.

But that’s unlikely to be the case again on Wednesday as Denmark come to Wembley.

Kasper Hjulmand’s side have had to endure more than anyone else at this tournament following the collapse of Christian Eriksen in their opening match, not to mention the fact they went into matchday three against Russia with no points on the board.

But the Danes have now won their last three matches by a 10-2 aggregate scoreline, a run that includes an impressive 4-0 win over Wales in the round-of-16.

Like Germany against Portugal — which now feels like a one-off for Löw’s side this summer — Denmark’s success has been built upon solid centre-backs covering for buccaneering wing-backs.

On the left, Joakim Maehle, well-versed in high-octane attacking football thanks to playing for Atalanta under Gian Piero Gasperini, pushes way beyond his midfield line and often becomes an out-and-out winger. And on the right, though slightly more withdrawn, Udinese’s Jens Stryger Larsen offers fantastic delivery. Each wing-back has created seven chances at Euro 2020, with only Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg managing more for Denmark, while Maehle has scored twice and both have an assist each.

“We wanted aggressive pressure all over the field and we felt that to match them up was the right way of doing that,” Southgate said of his decision to switch tactics against Germany. “We felt that speed in behind Harry would cause them problems.”

This should remain the case here, with England drawing Denmark into individual battles and pressing with structure, rather than simply sitting and waiting for a heavy touch to trigger a swarm of pressure as they did against Ukraine.

Although Hjulmand has shown flexibility himself, Denmark are at their best when stretching the play and getting their wing-backs forward, where they can deliver for the aerially dangerous Yussuf Poulsen and Kasper Dolberg. Pin them back and you stand a good chance of reducing the Danes to a set-piece team, an area England have already demonstrated their strength this summer.

Can Hjulmand’s side create through the middle, especially without Eriksen? Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips have already proved they’re a match for some of the best midfielders in the world with the way they’ve shut down the likes of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Leon Goretzka at this tournament.

All three of Denmark’s centre-backs are of a high standard, playing in the Premier League and Serie A with one Champions League winner. But between Andreas Christensen, Simon Kjaer and Jannik Vestergaard, pace is at a premium (though Christensen has clocked the joint-seventh top speed at Euro 2020). Once again, Kane creating space and the likes of Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka running in behind has serious potential to do damage.

What was perceived as negativity against Germany would now be rightly seen as pragmatism should Southgate play that same card. Some of the best international teams and managers of all time have built their tournament successes on being pragmatic, reacting to the opposition while making sure not to bow to them.

Denmark represent a much tougher challenge than Ukraine. But England are heavy favourites and history is beckoning. One more correct tactical decision and the Three Lions can look forward to a first major tournament final since 1966.

As Neil Diamond put it: “Good times never seemed so good”.