With Euro 2020 qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Montenegro just around the corner, Gareth Southgate will be deep in thought over his potential tactics for two crucial England games.
Back three or back four? Declan Rice or Eric Dier? Who are the best full-backs in the squad? These are just some of the questions on Southgate’s agenda.
In contrast, the team’s attacking personnel might seem like a foregone conclusion. Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are all in form and have essentially established themselves as guaranteed starters in recent months.
With that in mind, Southgate has the opportunity to experiment up front, developing the relationship between those three players while keeping them on their toes by introducing other options and systems.
Here are four attacking combos we might see against the Czech Republic and Montenegro.
1. The Established Trio – Rashford, Kane, Sterling
More than any other players, Rashford, Kane and Sterling are almost certain to be in the England starting line-up when Euro 2020 comes around. As a result, Southgate will be keen to play the trio together as often as possible leading up to the tournament.
All three played key roles in arguably England’s best performance under Southgate, last October’s 3-2 win against Spain in Seville. The hosts couldn’t deal with Kane’s hold-up play and the runs in-behind of Rashford and Sterling.
It’s a dynamic that has an incredible amount of potential. If Rashford and Sterling can start scoring more regularly on the international stage it will take some of the pressure off Kane, who can then drop deep – as he did to wonderful effect against Spain – and play a more supportive role.
Of course, Kane will also provide a central threat in this system when the ball is out wide, getting on the end of deliveries and supplying the lion’s share of the goals. And with all three forwards in goalscoring form right now – they have 55 club goals between them this term – England will always pose a threat when they are on the pitch together.
2. Lightning Youth – Hudson-Odoi, Rashford, Sancho
In could be said that, in the ‘Established Trio’ system, Rashford and Sterling are somewhat reliant on Kane to hold the ball up and bring them into the play. But England must find away to play without Kane, whose ankle has proven troublesome again of late.
With all due respect to Callum Wilson (more on him later), Kane is the only top-class traditional centre-forward in the squad. Consequently, if the captain was unavailable Southgate might turn to another wing-forward rather than calling on Wilson to do Kane’s job with half the ability.
Step forward the new generation. Jadon Sancho, brilliant for Borussia Dortmund this season, is clearly a future regular in the side, while Callum Hudson-Odoi has been given an opportunity to show why he should be playing more frequently for Chelsea and potentially England.
Sancho and Hudson-Odoi could be used either side of Rashford, culminating in a lightning quick front three with the capacity to beat opponents with sheer pace and trickery. It’s mouthwatering prospect, and if effective it bodes incredibly well for the future given the young age of all three players.
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3. Dele the Destroyer – Rashford, Alli, Sterling; Kane
Dele Alli’s standing in the England camp has been uncertain for a while now. He scored a crucial goal in the World Cup quarter-final against Sweden last summer but generally had an indifferent tournament, and the Three Lions have sometimes looked better without him.
The same can’t be said for Tottenham, who desperately missed Alli during his recent lay-off with a hamstring injury. He returned against Southampton earlier this month and was influential as Spurs took a 1-0 lead in the first half, brilliantly assisting a Kane goal. As Alli tired – understandably in his first game for weeks – the Londoners waned and went on to lose the match.
That partnership with Kane has served both Tottenham and England well in past, and Southgate could aim to revive it in the coming fixtures. If England play four at the back, the responsibility to provide attacking width will fall on Rashford and Sterling, so another central threat will be needed – Alli is the man.
The 22-year-old loves to make runs beyond Kane, who again can drop deep and make things happen in the No. 10 role while Alli provides an option further forward; the duo can interchange in that regard. Alternatively, if Alli isn’t fully fit, Sterling can play that role, with Sancho or Hudson-occupying a wide spot.
4. A New Partnership – Kane, Wilson
If Southgate decided to try two up front, he’d almost certainly go with Kane and Rashford. But having already looked at the hypothetical of Kane’s absence, let’s now look at Rashford’s. In that scenario, Southgate might try a partnership of Kane and Wilson.
Wilson is used to playing in a front two at Bournemouth, dovetailing with Joshua King impressively in the Premier League over the last three seasons. Theoretically, then, he could be even more productive when partnered by one of the best strikers in the world.
Ironically, his productivity is likely only to go downhill from here. Wilson is one for one in an England shirt so far, scoring on his debut against the USA in his only senior appearance to date.
Keeping up that ratio will be difficult, especially as he is only likely to get game time from the bench in competitive fixtures.
But it will be interesting to see if Southgate experiments with two centre-forwards, probably supported by a midfield diamond spearheaded by Alli or Sterling. Width is crucial with no attacking wide players, so the likes of Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell will have to be prepared to get forward whenever possible.