The Nations League, that most coveted of… trophies… is back, and with it a chance for England to earn their redemption for World Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of Croatia.
Zlatko Dalic has lost the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Vedran Corluka and Danijel Subasic to international retirement and a fair few remaining first team players to injury, meaning we could see a different Croatia to that which performed in Russia.
Gareth Southgate is in the next stage of his England reboot – how might he approach the match?
England’s shape and what went wrong in Russia
Southgate’s World Cup heroes managed to navigate a penalty shootout and avoid any truly tough opponents on their way to the semi-final, using a 3-5-2 system which relied on pace in wide areas, fast transitions and direct passing to the forwards. Also, set pieces.
After taking an early lead in that semi-final, Harry Kane was denied the chance to make it 2-0 from one yard thanks to a brilliant bit of goalkeeping by Subasic, pressure grew, Croatia dominated the space and eventually, and deservedly scored the goals to secure the win.
Southgate’s reluctance to change tactic during a game was to England’s downfall. Time and again Croatia found space in wide areas as Ashley Young’s weakness as a wing-back was exposed, along with Kyle Walker’s deficiencies at centre-back.
Most teams who play with a back five have a midfield four sit in front. This gives better coverage of the pitch and means that, in the example above, the left sided midfielder could shift over to ensure the wing-back isn’t left vulnerable. The advantage of playing three midfielders is that two forwards can be deployed, giving greater attacking impetus.
Croatia constantly created two vs ones in wide areas, freeing up one player to send in a cross by having the other keep a wing-back occupied. Young (18) didn’t get forward enough, Walker (2) was forced ever deeper to clean up mistakes and the shape was unbalanced.
By only playing three midfielders, England left themselves open to crosses into the box and made it difficult for themselves to transition from defence to attack with the ball under control.
Both of Croatia’s goals came from crosses sent into the box from wide. Perhaps Southgate felt the aerial abilities of Harry Maguire and John Stones could capably deal with this threat but as proven with Kyle Walker’s stooped header, allowing Mario Mandzukic in to score the equaliser, this was one risk too many.
With a different shape, the specific circumstances that led to these constant crosses probably wouldn’t have been there (that’s not to say different ones wouldn’t be) and the problem was glaringly obvious throughout. Southgate had faith in the system but this was over-reliance.
So, what now for England?
Mixing things up
Quite simply Croatia are – still – much better at keeping and using the ball. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic haven’t found form in La Liga this season but they controlled the World Cup semi-final and will likely do the same unless England change their strategy.
A look at Croatia’s passing from that game tells a story. Short, sideways, structured and patient. England’s passing is direct, forward and largely bypassing the midfield.
England’s plan of attacking down the wings to get the ball into the area, combined with their defensive shape granting space in wide areas for Croatia, resulted in the majority of the game being played on the wings.
The 3-5-2 shape requires the wing-backs to provide width, the strikers to move into channels and the midfield to distribute the ball quickly forward. At times the shape would look like a 3-3-2-2, divided into a defensive and an attacking section. Another variation of the shape is a 3-2-4-1 – the constant is three central defenders and two central midfielders providing protection.
Southgate has continued with his beloved system post-World Cup but brought in several shiny new youngsters adept in keeping the ball in midfield areas – will we see a change in shape? Mason Mount, Nathaniel Chalobah and James Maddison are all comfortable in possession and appear less to prone to hitting panic passes than previous generations of England players and would suit a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.
Keeping the ball in midfield
Ross Barkley has improved rapidly under Maurizio Sarri’s coaching, particularly his positional and tactical discipline, and his ability to carry the ball quickly between the lines suits Southgate’s want to transition rapidly from defence and attack.
Chalobah is a favourite of Southgate’s from the Under-21s and is natural as a ’six‘, more likely to go short than knock a pass into the channels. Harry Winks loves nothing more than a little sideways pass, then moving into space to recieve it back. Mount and Maddison are more attack-minded and creative but suit playing as a ’10‘, a position that doesn’t really exist within the current shape. Ross Barkley sits in the same boat but has been excellent as an ‚eight‘ for Chelsea.
Southgate might not feel a „competitive“ Nations League game is the best time to introduce a different shape to his team. That said, for this team to progress it would help having something akin to a Plan B, if not a few different strategies they can deploy, and with the players brought into the squad, a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 can definitely work within Southgate’s structured system.
Jadon Sancho and believing the hype
The surprise inclusion to this squad is Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, a highly-rated inside-forward, and a player who may finally solve the eternal puzzle of who plays on England’s left wing.
Southgate’s central tactical ideas – keeping the team defensively solid and creating chances to score on the counter-attack – will remain no matter the team shape, but if Sancho is ready for international football he might provide the kind of electric running England need. The problem is that introducing a wide forward requires a shift in formation to either a 3-4-3, or to a shape with a back four.
Ben Chilwell is likely to start against Croatia and has impressed as a left-back for Leicester, regularly overlapping and under-lapping the left inside-forward to provide additional attacking support. Kyle Walker starts as a right-back for Man City but has often held position as a right-sided centre-back in a defensive three as City advance up the pitch.
An England 4-2-3-1 could therefore easily become a 3-2-4-1 or 3-3-3-1 if Southgate borrows from Pep Guardiola’s tactics book, and if his plan is to get more ball-hungry midfielders – and Sancho – into the same starting XI, this is a way to do it. Eric Dier can drop into a back three, Walker can shift to wing-back, Barkley/Maddison/whoever can operate as an extra midfielder – Southgate has options, all of which should offer greater coverage of the pitch than the 3-5-2 did against Croatia last time.
With an extra forward England can press higher up the pitch if they want to (the two forwards against Croatia were effectively passive scarecrows), while the mid and low blocks we saw in the World Cup can be applied in any shape.
If England lineup in a similar way to their semi-final there is every chance they get a result, but as we learned in Russia, playing direct football against a team best in possession of the ball isn’t wise and inevitably hands the opponent chances to control the game.
Southgate must decide whether he wishes to stick with the same system and encourage players to adapt and make it work or look to the future and introduce passing players like Harry Winks or Lewis Cook. Wolves have managed to control midfield in a 3-4-3 shape this season but have Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves to do so – are England’s midfielders as technically capable as those two? Jordan Henderson’s passing in the semi-final says no.
Possession football doesn’t always win but England must get their own strategy nailed down and develop tactically if they are to defeat teams who play it well.