If I were Gareth Southgate…

Introduction

The Euros are less than four weeks away and Gareth Southgate is due to name his extended 26-man squad next week. Despite the increased allowance to the squad size, there are still numerous tough calls to make, particularly at Right Back and the Attacking areas, due to the strength in-depth that England have at the moment. It is hard to remember an England Manager who has had such an array of talent to choose from going into a major International tournament, and the years delay has helped Southgate as players like Foden, Mount, Saka, Greenwood, Bellingham have all matured and players like Shaw and Stones have had great seasons and rediscovered their form.

Despite all of this, there’s still more questions than answers currently. Will he play four or five at the back? Will he play two holding midfielders? Will Henderson, Rice, Grealish be fit? Will he pick Trent Alexander-Arnold? More should become clear with the squad selection next week, and more still with the two friendlies against Austria and Romania on the 2nd and 6th June, respectively.

With the domestic season drawing to a close, and attention switching to the International scene, I have put together the 26 names that would form my squad and conducted an analysis of how I would set them up.

My Squad

Goalkeepers

  1. Jordan Pickford
  2. Nick Pope
  3. Dean Henderson

Defenders

  1. Kyle Walker
  2. Trent Alexander-Arnold
  3. Reece James
  4. Harry Maguire
  5. John Stones
  6. Fikayo Tomori
  7. Eric Dier
  8. Luke Shaw
  9. Ben Chilwell

Midfielders

  1. Jordan Henderson
  2. Declan Rice
  3. Jude Bellingham
  4. Kalvin Phillips
  5. Mason Mount
  6. Phil Foden

Forwards

  1. Marcus Rashford
  2. Raheem Sterling
  3. Jadon Sancho
  4. Jack Grealish
  5. Bukayo Saka
  6. Harry Kane
  7. Dominic Calvert-Lewin
  8. Mason Greenwood

My setup

My preferred formation would be 4-3-3, but I have picked a squad that could switch to 3-4-3 against stronger opposition if required.

Starting line-up for Croatia:

* Henderson to be replaced by Bellingham if he is not fit for the first game.

My Starting 11 for the first game

Criteria:

  1. Form – Players like Kane, Foden, Mount, Rice, Shaw, Maguire, Stones have all had great seasons and should be in the team on merit.
  2. Balance – With any team it needs to have the balance between attack and defence. Although it is tempting to overload the team with as much of the attacking talent in the squad as possible, only a balanced team will win the competition.
  3. Relationships – A common criticism of England squads of yesteryears is that domestic rivalries and cliques are apparent, and therefore the team chemistry & relationships formed have not been where they need to be, to win a major International competition. Whilst I do not think this is as much of a problem for this generation of players, I have made use of established domestic relationships within this team. Maguire-Shaw-Rashford down the left and Stones-Walker-Foden down the right. This understanding between them should help when defending together and importantly with attacking patterns.
  4. Maximising strengths – Scholes, left midfield? Not for me. Players need to be played in positions within a system that allows them to maximise their strengths. This means leaving out some big names, but individuals will not win an international tournament. The back four all play in back fours for their clubs, so they will be comfortable in this system. Rice can provide defensive protection, as he does so well for West Ham. Henderson provides balance, energy, and leadership in the 8 role. Mount can play deep enough to have an influence, but with the defensive structure around him that allows him to move into the attacking left half space when Rashford is starting out wide. Rashford likes to come in from the left making penetrative runs in behind, much like Son at Tottenham, therefore Kane can drop deep, as he is so good at, while Rashford stretches the defence the other way. Foden has freedom to roam from the inside right position, there is nobody better in world football (Messi aside) at appearing in pockets and breaking down defensive lines.

Team Structure

Whilst it is a 4-3-3 on paper, that is all it is. A formation is just a framework, it is important that the players know their defensive and attacking responsibilities within the system as a whole.

Defensive Structure

Team shape out of possession

In the defensive phase, I would set up in a narrow 4-4-2. This firstly crowds the central areas, making it tough for teams to play through. It will also force teams to attack down the sides, where the pace of Kyle Walker and an in-form Luke Shaw can contain the threat, paired with Mount and Foden using their intensity and endurance to support them. Importantly, it means that it takes the defensive responsibility off of the main goal threats; Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford. Kane can drop in, to collect the ball from deep, whilst Rashford will always be on the last line of the defence, ready to run in behind and gives England the ability to transition quickly/an outlet into the channels when England are under the cosh. Whilst it is certainly less common in modern football, a 4-4-2, two banks of four is still a strong defensive base.

Attacking Structure

Team shape in possession

In attack the structure will be a 2-3-5/3-2-5 with Rice sitting in with Maguire and Stones as the core defenders. Shaw and Henderson will tuck in and be well positioned to help from deep in attack, whilst also well positioned to cope with a counterattack. There will always be at least four in defensive positions, although largely this is based on a 5-5 balance. Five attacking players, five defenders.  

The key to the attacking patterns will be the front five playing in the five vertical channels of the pitch. Walker and Rashford out wide, Mount and Foden in the inside half-spaces and Kane central. This will stretch defenders and create space for Foden and Mount to play in, and for Rashford to run into. It will also encourage Kane to stay central, where he will gain the most opportunities.

I believe it is crucial for players to be able to express themselves in the attacking areas, but five players all playing with free reign can generate problems and a lack of cohesion, particularly in International football, where the players do not train day-in day-out with each other. Having this five-channel structure, provides the base for the attacking players to be expressive within and provides the best opportunity for cohesive attacking patterns.

Attacking Patterns

To make the most of the abundance of attacking talent that England are blessed with, there needs to be an emphasis on effective attacking patterns and providing a framework for these players to breakdown opposition defences. Particularly against Scotland and the Czech Republic who will undoubtedly defend in a packed low block, where well-rehearsed, cohesive, and intricate patterns will be required to open them up. In Foden, Mount, Kane they certainly have the players to do it and against Scotland and the Czechs they could play the extra attacker in Grealish, with Mount playing the Henderson role.

The key to effective possession for me is creating overloads. This system allows for overloads to be created all over the pitch, where 3 players can be near to each other at all times, allowing for triangles and staggered lines to help breakdown low blocks (also means they are well positioned to counter press and win the ball back quickly).

Creating overloads in the right channel

When playing down the right, Henderson can step up from deep to form an overload with Foden and Walker. Shaw can tuck in from the left to provide a solid defensive structure. Mount can position centrally as an option should England look to move across the pitch. Kane will be where he is needed, in-between the goalposts, and Rashford can enter late at the back post.

Creating overloads in the left channel

When attacking down the left, a similar pattern can occur. Shaw can step forward and create an overload with Mount and Rashford. Foden can come central, for the sideways option. Kane is still where he is needed, and this time, Walker is providing the width. Although Foden and Walker could interchange, like they do for Manchester City. Henderson will this time tuck in to provide the defensive cover.

Plan B

Whilst a 4-3-3 is my preferred setup for this team, should England get into the latter stages of the tournament, then it is likely that a Plan B will be needed – either because Plan A is not working or because they need an extra defensive body. Should this happen, I have picked my squad with players in mind that could fit a 3-4-3.

Defensive Structure

Defensive shape

3-4-3 would become a 5-3-2 out of possession. Keeping the partnership up top, but an extra body in the heart of defence. Foden and Mount will drop alongside Rice and support their Full Backs. This would be a good setup against a team who dominate the ball, making it hard for teams to play through, also has bodies in the box to deal with deliveries in.

Attacking Structure

Attacking shape in 3-4-3 system

Would stay fairly similar to the structure in Plan A. This time with Chilwell providing width on the left and Mount playing deeper, allowed to pull strings and conduct the tempo.

Squad Options

Squad options for 4-3-3
Squad options for 3-4-3

The squad I picked provides adequate cover in all positions for both systems, particularly in attacking areas, where options will be most important.

Goalkeepers

I would go with Pickford as my number 1, purely because he has experience in these big tournaments, and he edges it with distribution. The three keepers pick themselves in the squad though.

Defenders

Maguire, Stones, Shaw, Chilwell, Walker are nailed on picks for the squad. James offers probably England’s most rounded Right Back, his power is useful both offensively, and on the right side of a back three. TAA is the best attacking Full Back in world football, England are spoilt for choice. Tomori should never have been allowed to leave Chelsea on loan this season, he was the best Centre Back for them last season, and he has shown his quality in Milan this season. He has electric pace, power and can play with both feet. I went for Dier over the other options largely for the experience that he brings, but also for leadership and versatility, although he will be fourth choice Centre Back.

Midfielders

Mount and Foden deserve to have the team built around them. Foden is probably the most naturally talented footballer England have had, challenging Wayne Rooney and Gazza. Mount has immense quality but his intensity, versatility, and pressing ability is world-class. Rice is the best holding option England have, Henderson should Skipper the side over Kane in my opinion, his leadership of Liverpool has been incredible. Phillips is the back up to Rice, Bellingham another incredible young player, gives that box-to-box option.

Forwards

Where to start? Kane is alongside Lewandowski as the best Striker in the World. Greenwood is an incredible young finisher, whilst DCL has had a great season at Everton and provides that more physical option upfront. Sancho, Sterling, Rashford, Saka bring pace, dribbling ability, versatility, goals and assists to the side from the channels. Then there’s Jack Grealish who would have been a strong contender for player of the season in the Premier League this season, had he not got injured in February and has been out ever since. That has also probably cost him his place in the starting line-up for the Euros but will be an invaluable member of the squad with his ball carrying skills, also with how many free-kicks he wins – set-pieces were a strength of England at the last World Cup.

Conclusion

‘Southgate you’re the one.’ ‘Football’s coming home’. ‘This is our year’ etc…

…what better way to end what has been a terrible year for all, than England lifting the trophy at Wembley… we can dream.

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