Is England Finally Ready To Bring Football Home?
9:05 pm, 11th of July 2018. Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
It's the World Cup semi-final and Dele Alli has just earned a free-kick. Up steps his Tottenham teammate Kieran Trippier. Croatia's goalkeeper Danijel Subasic can only watch as the effort from 25 yards sails past his helpless net. England seem on the cusp of ending a 52-year tournament final drought.
However, and there's always a however with England, but two and a half hours later, and Mario Mandzukic has just tiptoed past the English defence and has once again sent the Three Lions home in heartbreaking fashion.
13 English players who boarded the plane to Russia won't be touching down at the Euros as Gareth Southgate continues to breath new life, and new hope, into the English set-up.
Whilst perhaps not as talented as the famous 'Golden Generation" all those years ago, this team has as good a chance as any to finally bring a major trophy home again.
In fact, England have already changed history in that infamous 2018 campaign. Beating Columbia on penalties marked the first time England had won a shootout in a World Cup after three previous failings, while England enter this tournament as FIFA's #4 team, the loftiest status they've had entering a major tournament since taking a #5 rank into the 1998 World Cup.
Having never won a single European Championship previously (nor even made a final) is this England's best chance to bring home its first major tournament since winning the 1966 World Cup?
3-4-3 or 4-3-3?
One of the most contentious issues about this England team is whether they play a 3 or 4 man defence. Gareth Southgate has taken 4 recognised centre-halves with him to the Euros, not including Kyle Walker, who, if the 3-back system is used, will more than likely be deployed at the right-sided centre back position.
With the inclusion of 3 other right-backs in the squad, this further lends its hand to playing a 3-4-3. England has played different formations based on the competition's they are playing in. In the Nations League, the 3-back formation has been preferred, whereas in Euro qualification, a 4-back formation was utilised.
Playing a 4-3-3 in qualification, England were defensively solid, conceding 6 goals all qualification, while maintaining its sharp attacking edge which still netted 37 times.
This system includes playing one holding midfielder as a pivot, with a box-to-box midfielder along with an attacking number 8 ahead of him. Alongside 2 attacking fullbacks, this allows for both offensive overloads as well as defensive solidity, whilst not losing the midfield battle. From their 7 wins in qualification, all have come using this system.
The one loss came whilst using a more defensive structure. A 4-2-3-1 more specifically which saw the use of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice as a two-man pivot with Mason Mount ahead. This limited the attacking ability which saw them limited to only 7shots for the match. They have also lost 2 other games in recent times (both in the Nations League) using a 3-4-3 system.
Based on England's most recent friendly outing against Austria, we can assume they opt for 4-3-3 system, the likes of which worked so well in qualifying and gives them the best chance of scoring and preventing goals.
Starting with personal, it's clear which players Southgate would prefer to deploy down the spine of his team.
In the centre of defence, Harry Maguire (if fit) and John Stone are locks. Recently minted Champions League winner Mason Mountis the first selected in midfield, while of course, Harry Kane leads the line up front.
Should Jordan Henderson not recover in time, you can expect Declan Rice to play in that deeper midfield position. All these players should start at the tournament based on precedent. These players are deemed ‘necessities’ under Southgate and will be integral to the nation's chances at the Euro’s
In attack, England prefers a methodical and patient build-up from defence.
With both centre-halves spilt deep to collect the ball and both fullbacks pushing up, maintaining width. This leaves Declan Rice to drop in between both centre backs to collect the ball deeper. His 86.2% pass completion has led to a lot of success both at West Ham and for the Three Lions.
Once the ball is advanced up the pitch, England puts heavy emphasis on the side Mason Mount is playing. This is partly due to the importance of Mason Mount, who plays as a 'Mezzala' on the left of midfield. 'Mezzala', coming from both Italian word’s “half” and “winger”, is a central player who likes to drift wide and get in advanced positions. Having 4.41 shot-creating actions per-90 minutes this season ranks him in the top 3%in Europe’s big 5 leagues, and further emphasises his quality and importance to this team.
Southgate recently said that he "does not have 4 good right-backs, he has 4 good footballers", this rationale can be seen all over the pitch. When attacking down the left, he employs numerical overloads on that side with the Left Back, Winger and Mason Mount to overwhelm the opposition full-back. The fluidity in this side can be seen as a player like Mount who can drive at the defence, take the ball wide or get a cross in. Southgate expects similar from both his fullback and winger.
When looking at what to do when the ball is in the box, Harry Kane provides all sorts of problems. Due to his stature and his ability, naturally, both defenders will be drawn to him and worried about his position. This allows other attacking players to make late runs in the box relatively unmarked due to Kane's presence. He also possesses the ability to hang off the last man and make runs in behind, creating another problem for defences to think about.
In addition, another aspect of Kane's game that has evolved is his playmaking. 3.21 progressive passes per-90 and 2.50 passes into the final third per-90 this season for Tottenham is indicative of a player who's both an incredible finisher and elite provider. Kane also acts as a great option for a long ball for when a team presses high, with his 2.48 aerials won per-90 is testament to that.
In defence, England like to press, both high and aggressively. They squeeze high up and narrow, playing compact and clustered in defence to force the opposition to deploy long balls which England should be good enough to clean up most of the time.
One feature of their press is accountability. If you lose the ball, you press the ball carrier. Somewhat counterproductive as this can lead to players being out of position. However, this counter-pressing nature again causes the opposition to put themselves into traps that force the longball. Or, should England regain possession, they would have a lot of numbers around the ball, therefore a quick and dangerous transition is open. They are adaptive to play anyone of a low, medium or high block which can change this 4-3-3 formation into a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-5-1, depending on the opposition.
So, is England finally ready to bring football home?
Can they win the Euros?
Well, England has got as good a chance as ever, taking the most balanced squad into a major tournament for quite some time.
This team is peppered with youthful exuberance on every line, as well as veteran experience. They carved out new territory at the last World Cup, the question is can they go a step or two better at the Euros? Only time will tell.
Did you enjoy this article? Join our free mailing list to get the best content delivered straight to your inbox, or join the conversation by leaving a comment below or on the Stats Insider Twitter or Facebook page.