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The Case for England 4-2-3-1
I don’t disagree at all with Sam’s point about defence being key in international football, but I do take a bit of umbrage that that necessitates us playing a formation that sets up so negatively when we do have ball playing talent.
I see three at the back as having three supposed advantages:
Supports weaker CBs – provides additional cover over 2 CBs
Easier to drill – Easier to set up for a defensive unit, ensures you only need one player to move over if a CB steps out of defence and limits additional tactics from your midfield double pivot to step back if wing-back goes forward (instead CB slides across).
Provides distinct channels for counter-attacking (same as above, easier to drill)
Addressing the first area: three at the back is there to support weak CBs primarily; it adds stability at the cost of expansiveness and control in the middle of the field. It works well for counter-attacking assuming your full-back’s are all action and gives you a chance of ‘punching above your weight’ but it offers very little when trying to break down teams defending deep, especially if the two midfielders you pick in the centre are more defensively-natured. It also limits your ability to ever overload in a single part of the pitch like a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 does. Arsenal fans this season have seen this played out extensively over the last two seasons.
Doing that with this England team seems daft. Despite our pining for the age of Ferdinand/Terry, I don’t see our CBs as *that* bad. Are we saying many countries are better? It’s a bit of a mess (France excepted, who have a ton) all round.
Conversely, this England team has an abundance of high possession, high intensity midfield talent (that especially plays outside to in) that can dictate games. Getting the best out of that section of the pitch should be the emphasis for Southgate, in particular if we look longer term (say, next world cup, or even European Champs when more are in their prime).
We have such depth in those areas in particular it doesn’t make sense not to lean on creating really strong tactics and drilling in this area knowing there is a conveyor belt of players all playing the same roles for their clubs who all confer an ‘advantage’ over the majority of nations over the coming decade.
That same role bit feeds into the tactics side too. I get how the shorter periods of time managers have make it harder to instil structures. But of the teams in the UK, the top 11 play regularly either 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and the couple who mix up a bit more (I guess Chelsea, although surely Tuchel doesn’t see 3 CBs in his future) still use specifically their England players in roles that are better fits for 4 at the back than 3 (James is definitely more fullback than wingback, Mount can flex between 8 and 10 depending on game state). So if Southgate went to them and said I want a high press, high circulation middle 5 (double pivot plus an 8/10, with two wide players running onto Kane or tucking inside to allow the full back to cross) it’s what they’re basically all doing at club level anyway.
It’s an oversimplification in my mind, but you choose a back three when your options are limited and structure will save you, but if you’re the better, more technical team, it’s really cowardice not to dictate the game in the middle (or a lack of tactical nous from the coach).
And when 3 at the back goes wrong? Like against Switzerland for U-21s? It’s uninspiring, tragic and toothless. That game should have Boothroyd fired on the spot tbh.
Southgate doesn’t have a good record against good teams. The glorious semi-final run of the last world cup came off almost no goals from open play (he can coach a good set-piece, I’ll give him that). I can’t see how anyone can properly defend his tactics given we lost to the first two ‘good’ teams we played (Belgium and Croatia) and toothlessly drew with another in Colombia. Nations League games don’t count (and honestly have always been a mess, we win or lose seemingly randomly with little consistency in approach play between them).
I think people will appreciate more boldness now. If Southgate makes it clear what he’s trying to do and the sustained success he expects to achieve from it (longer team) I think it gives him a better chance of being manager long term.
Having the courage to overcome fear
Southgate earns £3m a year or approx £200k a game he is in charge. So while we don’t need to get personal, I do believe we have the right to criticise the England Manager – he gets well paid for the privilege. Most have actually been rather supportive until this last batch of games as he was a breath of fresh, mostly on the back of lucking through the last WC, but has turned stale.
Sam’s ‘hot take’ is that rather than take full advantage of the great attacking talent available, we should set up defensively, to address the great attacking talent of our possible future opponents. Think about that. Are Portugal, Germany or France saying that they need to set up defensively, foregoing the attacking talent Sam points out, in favour of a defensive formation in case they come against each other?
And it also ignores the larger context of the knock against Southgate, which is that a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 simply shoehorns more mediocre talent into a formation not suited to most of the team and/or plays them out of position. We saw Boothroyd do the exact same thing with the U21s against Switzerland – and lose.
I heard one pundit and a recent letter state that using 3-5-3 or 3-4-3 allows England to retain possession. Well, in recent matches it showed the exact opposite. He played Lingard because he ‘trusts’ him, yet won’t play better talented players which is only because he doesn’t trust them. That’s a no win situation for those players. Sure, they are going to make passes attempting to break the line that won’t always get through – just as the great Portuguese, German and French attacking talent will do. But when they do break the line – needed against better opposition, it puts England with a chance of beating those teams. Not playing defensively.
Sam also then goes on to point out that we have some decent defensive players – and I agree – but they don’t need to be shoehorned into a 3-x formation to be decent. In fact, our better full backs – and we have a lot – all play better in a 4-3-3.
Picking a team that is fluid, with players in their best positions, does not make them less defensive. 3-5-2 with less ball playing players means losing possession, sideways passes, limited ability to press and avoid the press. It adds more pressure on the team to scramble defensively. The French team that played a ‘boring’ WC had all that same attacking talent mentioned earlier by Sam.
The best game England played in recent years was the 3-2 away win against Spain. England played 4-3-3. Here is what Southgate had to say “it [4-3-3] has allowed us to press the ball a lot better but you still need courage to play and the players out there had the courage to receive the ball under pressure.” What he didn’t say was that it also takes courage from the manager to play that way. We haven’t seen that courage again – well, unless you think it’s courageous to play that way against the San Marino part-timers.
I’ll leave you with a great quote on courage in sport which is what I am hoping Southgate will live up to “Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you.”
England cannot be Greece 2004
I couldn’t help but bite after reading Sam’s ‘hot take’ on the ‘silo of abuse’ Gareth Southgate has apparently received. He’s not really had any abuse, nevermind a silo, just legitimate, reasoned criticism. We all think he’s a lovely guy, as progressive an individual as you can get in English football. And no one thinks he should ‘cram’ as many attackers into his side as possible, just that maybe seven defensive players out of 10 is too much the other way. Particularly when these few attacking players mostly get selected on the basis of being able to run – either fast or a lot – rather than what they can do with the ball. And particularly when it is not just against top sides like Belgium but also teams like Denmark.
Pragmatic – for that read getting men behind the ball and barely stringing two passes together in the opposition half – has been tried many times by England at tournaments and never ends well. See Croatia in 2018 for example, where it was only a matter of time before we conceded. Why? Because we did not have the players with the skill or ability to keep hold of the ball, nevermind do something meaningful with it. This is necessary to make pragmatic work. Defence and attack, running and technique, need to be balanced.
Exactly like the sides Sam references. Argentina had Messi and their usual embarrassment of talented players to make a pragmatic framework also dangerous. Portugal had Ronaldo, Holand had van Persie, Sneijder and Robben. Not sure France 2018 were ‘boring’, scoring 11 goals in the knock rounds, they were just all round good. Greece 2004 really is the only fair comparison and it’s unlikely that this limited but solid approach will get the necessary fortune to work again.
But the most baffling claim of Sam’s was we have a very good defence. Last week I suggested only three people did not think Grealish should be in the England side and sadly one of them was Southgate. An exaggeration obviously, but I really would be surprised if even three people thought England had a very good defence. And Southgate clearly is not one of them – hence 3 at the back. Stones may have finally come good, we have half a season’s evidence for that. But evidence from a far longer period of time makes that, at best, a hope rather than certainty. Maguire is what he is, big brave and nut you the ball clear from a corner all day. But slow, clumsy and worrying when faced with a quality striker. Walker for all his get out of jail pace cannot complete 90 minutes without switching off and doing something silly.
Set-piece based Greece-style pragmatic was fine in 2018 and we rode our luck to the semis. As Sam pointed out, we will not get so fortunate with the draw this time so Southgate can’t just cross his fingers and hope lightning strikes twice. It won’t, we’ll need more and we have the players to try if he’d just select them.
Ronnie Buzzard, Manchester
A call to arms
This is aimed at United fans but any input is welcome. We all know how United fans feel about the Glazers, we all know we want them out still. They either don’t care or simply can’t run a football club well.
So, how about this? We apparently have 600 million fans worldwide. The Glazers want 3 billion to sell the club. 3 billion divided by 600 million is 5 bucks a head.
It’s a long shot, but with the right kind of PR and a prolonged campaign, how many think it’s feasible or not in this digital age?
It’s either that or we have to get demoted to League 2 to be rid of them, or bought by oil money.
One nation club teams
How’s this for a Scottish Liverpool XI: approaching 400 Scotland caps, it’s a team chock full of club legends, former club and national captains, multiple players of the year, two former managers and arguably the greatest player the club has seen, not to mention a former team-mate of Pele, Bobby Moore, Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine’s:
(4-3-3): Tommy Lawrence; Steve Nicol, Ron Yeats, Alan Hansen, Andy Robertson; Graeme Souness, Gary McAllister, John Wark; Billy Liddell, Ian St John, Sir Kenny Dalglish.
Manager: Bill Shankly
Man Utd’s French team…
The obvious french contingent of Man United, in some sort of 4231
Silvestre Prunier Blanc Evra
Obertan Cantona Martial
Not bad I guess….
Henri, Man United fan in France
Just had a little skim through the mailboxes and wanted to point out that Mike, Atalanta made the Brexit football analogy but picked the wrong reference point in Man Utd.
It was actually Colin Brown’s email later that week which captured the football equivalent of Brexit perfectly; someone so bothered about something as inane as the colour of a shirt that they felt the need to write in to an internet mailbox to moan about it.
It’s feeling that the utterly irrelevant is somehow important and simultaneously convincing yourself that England have a god given right to wear white which is Brexit in a nut shell. And, of course, it’s completely deluded.
Going back to watching the Rugby until proper football comes back.