England will hardly approach the 2022 FIFA World Cup in good form, having endured a catastrophic UEFA Nations League A campaign that saw them go winless in six matches and ultimately suffer relegation to the tournament’s second tier.
What’s more, fans have been alarmed by England’s increasingly defensive outlook, with manager Gareth Southgate having once again reverted to playing three at the back and adopted an increasingly conservative approach.
But is playing three at the back a sensible approach for England, or does it fail to make the most of the talent at Southgate’s disposal? Let’s find out.
England’s 3-4-3 – How Might it Look?
If we look at England’s last outing against Germany, Southgate deployed a relatively rigid 3-4-3 formation, complete with two defensive wingbacks, a double midfield pivot and two wide forwards flanking talisman Harry Kane.
We should expect Southgate to maintain this shape in England’s World Cup opener against the USA, with Manchester City’s versatile Kyle Walker (if fit) likely to play on the right side of a three-man defensive line, with Newcastle’s experienced Kieran Trippier the favourite to play at right wingback in the absence of the injured Reece James.
With Declan Rice and a much-improved Jude Bellingham expected to hold the midfield, this creates space for two creative players either side of Kane, with a myriad of stars including Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Jarrod Bowen and in-form Marcus Rashford all competing for these limited spaces.
Herein lies the issue for many, with Southgate’s inflexible and defence-oriented shape excluding a large proportion of the side’s creative attacking talent. This arguably creates an imbalance between defence and attack, especially with defensively minded players in the wingback positions and Declan Rice expected to play conservatively as the anchor.
Is Southgate’s System Right for England?
There’s a couple of considerations here. Firstly, the deployment of a back three isn’t inherently negative, with managers like Thomas Tuchel and his Chelsea successor Graham Potter often using attacking or inverted wingbacks to press teams high and dominate matches with this shape.
Instead, it’s the wider tactical approach and use of players that determines precisely how you play. Southgate’s approach in the 2018 World Cup is also evidence of this, as this saw the manager play with a back three and single midfield pivot (Jordan Henderson), with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard deployed in more attacking central roles.
This became an innovative and attacking 3-1-4-2 when in possession, while it crucially enabled England to field an additional attacking player and play with considerably more flexibility.
Secondly, it’s crucial that Southgate develops a system that suits both his philosophy and the wider pool of players at his disposal. So, if he wants to play a conservative 3-4-3 in possession (with this becoming a 5-4-1 when defending) and adopt a relatively deep defensive block before looking to counterattack, and he has the playing squad to achieve this objective, then this will afford England the best chance of success in Qatar.
Sure, this will leave a wealth of attacking talent on the bench for much of the tournament, but there’s little point in Southgate in fielding an overload of creative flair players if he lacks the tactical framework or coaching toolkit to create a balanced and workable first eleven.
Ultimately, other managers would probably play a more offensive shape that incorporates more attacking players if they managed England, and this may be a source of frustration for fans.
However, playing a back three is clearly right for Southgate at the moment, as he looks to build a solid defensive foundation and use the pace and guile of the attacking players that he does field on the counterattack.