So we start off our Euro 2020 series with a tactical report on arguably one of the favourites for the competition, England. Much has happened in the 4 years since Euro 2016 where they went out to Iceland in the Round of 16 in what was a truly dreadful display.
That display capped off a nightmare decade for English football, one in which Wayne Rooney was indulged at the expense of what was best for the side and compounded by the fact there just did not seem to be a strong wave of talent coming through. It was frankly a far cry from the Golden Generation of the late 90’s and early noughties.
Then came the summer of 2018, where Gareth Southgate threatened to bring ‘Football Home’. A well organised 3-5-2 system built around a new generation of fresh-faced players seemed to do the trick and for the first time since 2004, England performed fluently and effectively. What was refreshing in particular was seeing players played in their optimal positions with no one shoehorned in.
Fast forward 3 years later, and Southgate possesses a talent-laden squad which is far superior on paper. This has brought its own pressures as suddenly every man and his dog has their own alternative vision of how the national team should be playing and which players need to be starting.
Results have been largely solid but upon closer inspection, defeats to the likes of Belgium and the Netherlands in the Nations League – rare instances of England actually coming up against quality opponents hint at the fact that Gareth still has not quite found the right formula for outplaying strong opponents – a theme we will touch upon during this report.
In terms of formation, England’s go to formations since the World Cup have been the 3-4-3 (used 72% of the time during 2020) and the 4-3-3 (used 70% of the time during 2021). This reflects the need to accommodate the vast array of young full backs and CAM’s that have now entered the fold.
Without the ball, England have a healthy PPDA which ranges from 11-14 depending on the nature of the opponent. This is on par with rivals Germany and France and suggests that Southgate has been largely successful in moving England away from the sit back and frustrate strategies deployed by the likes of Capello and Hodgson.
With players like Kane, Sterling, Foden playing for managers such as Pochettino and Guardiola – it is no wonder that they have taken to this like ducks to water and therefore it is unlikely that England will be found wanting in this regard. Their backline will also be comfortable in playing in a high press system – Stones, Walker, Chilwell – again all play under Pep or Tuchel/Rodgers, so will be accustomed to this strategy.
Aerially, England are a tough team to break down. In Harry Maguire they have a man who is not afraid to put his head where it hurts - with an aerial success rate of close to 70%. They have also been bolstered by the introduction of Declan Rice who has an aerial success rate of 56% which is marginally better than the likes of Busquets and Casemiro.
Along the ground, England are blessed with recovery pace down the flanks in the likes of Walker and Shaw. Both are solid 1 v 1 defenders, so if England need to shut down wide threats – they are well placed to do that. Centrally, they are not that strong in terms of pace which makes the decision to not pick Tomori or Godfrey a baffling one. The only explanation can be that Southgate intends on using 3 at the back and the pace will come from guys like Walker as side centre backs.
In possession, England are blessed with cultured ball players across the back 4 and it would not be remiss to say they are arguably the strongest in the competition in this respect. Pickford is also generally strong in terms of distribution, so expect to see plenty of high passing networks across the defence as England try to lure in the opposition.
Touching on Pickford, the goalkeeper situation is not the strongest. None of their keepers fall into the world-class bracket and Pickford apart, we are talking about very little exposure to the highest levels of the game. Since Pickford has grown his hair, he seems to have improved his domestic form but all things considered, this area is a weakness rather than a strength for England.
Depth wise, England are stacked at full back to the point that the heart-breaking loss of Trent Alexander-Arnold barely registered outside of the media. There is no such depth at goalkeeper, centre back and no specialist CDM outside of Declan Rice. This is a worry as this concerns the ‘spine’ of the side.
Expect… To see Pickford, Stones, Maguire and Walker start and the likes of James/Shaw/Chilwell to play depending on the the formation.
Under Southgate, England have become one of the leading possession hoarders in the game with a 61% average. When they have faced teams of a similar rank, it has become more of a 50-50 split which is respectable although against Spain (League of Nations 15.10.2018) this dropped to 29% - yet still managing to win 2-3.
What is concerning and has not really been addressed since 2018 is the quality of that possession play. England’s ability to pass progressively out of deeper areas is still problematic, and they tend to inflate their possession statistics by virtue of their endless backwards and sideways passing.
This is highlighted in their games against Spain, Netherlands where they on average had 20-30% less progressive passes. This leads to accusations of sterile possession and fuels the fear that England will once again come unstuck against the first decent team they face as they will end up getting pinned in their own half with no idea of how to get the ball forward.
Back in 2018, England had the likes of Dier and Henderson. Whilst there was an attempt to rectify this issue of progression from deeper lying areas through the introduction of Harry Winks – his fall from grace under the Mourinho regime has put paid to any thoughts of him featuring at Euro 2020. This puts the onus on the new breed like Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips to progress the ball out of the defensive third.
Whilst Rice has received praise for his ability to get forward from defensive positions, it is not quite the same as being able to successfully pick the ball off the defenders and construct attacks from deep. His xGChain and xGBuildUp90 stats are weaker than players like Phillips, let alone maestros like Busquets. He’s a player who likes to participate in a minimalistic way in the build up before bombing forward to join in with the counter – that is not going to cut it against a France.
Phillips can definitely perform the deep lying playmaker role but defensively he is weak in terms of positional play. His pressing numbers are excellent – he does play for a Bielsa side so that was to be expected – but he’s not someone who will take out a top attacking midfielder out of the game. One other glaring weakness is that his ability to carry the ball and progress it, is not really something to shout about.
He relies more on his long passing to progress the game and this is where someone like Winks is missing for England. He has the slipperiness in possession to wriggle out of the high press, whereas Phillips needs the right type of players and movement around him to successfully transition the ball from defence to attack.
Two players we have not spoken about are Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham. Both are proven at Champions League level and have that experience of playing against the best players in the world. That alone should make them the preferred choices for Southgate but they too have their own fair share of weaknesses.
Henderson was exposed in the 2018 semi final, as incapable of controlling the game from a deeper area and is prone to passing backwards and sideways when under pressure. At Liverpool, he has been at his best when the likes of Fabinho and Wijnaldum have done the heavy lifting in the build up and allowing Henderson to operate in a box to box role, gravitating wider when he wants to be more influential in terms of progressing the game. He will have no such luxury for England.
Bellingham has the skills to be the all-round package for England and we saw against Man City in the Champions League how he was able to compete against the best side in English Football. But against Austria in the recent friendly we saw how he was incapable of effecting the build up – perhaps a timely reminder that at heart he is a box to box midfielder.
Finally there is the wildcard option of Mason Mount. He has been used in central midfield on rare occasions for Chelsea to middling effect before being unleashed under Tuchel as an inside forward. The issue is that England are overflowing with talent in the CAM positions, and they can’t afford to leave Mount out either.
He is rare in the sense that he is blessed with industry of an incomparable scale and has quality in possession that England can ill afford to leave out from their engine room. But I can’t see Gareth deploying him there often out of fear that the defence will be left exposed, unless of course it is as part of a diamond or in a 3-5-2. Hard to also imagine him not being in the side, so expect him to start somewhere, somehow.
Expect… To see Henderson start if fit, with the likelihood of Declan Rice featuring next to him and the likes of Bellingham being brought on if it does not work. Mount to feature further forward.
In Grealish, Sancho and Foden – England are jam packed with players who can thread the ball through the eye of a needle or carry the ball under pressure before releasing it at the right moment. Going back to early noughties, England had Rooney, Scholes and Joe Cole who could do that but how many times were these three players available at the same time, in their best positions and injury free?
Sancho is easily the most productive of the three golden boys, with 18 goals and 21 assists and yet paradoxically he’s also the player most likely to play passively and roam around without attempting to drive the game forward, especially in an England shirt.
This is probably the reason why Southgate has struggled to forge a true connection with Sancho, as he naturally gravitates towards players who ‘graft’ and stick to the script. Dortmund’s gem is the epitome of a free spirit and can operate on either flank at will, as well as flirting around in the hole. This makes him a difficult player to understand and for a team like England which plays in rigid lines, it is hard to see him hit his Dortmund heights in this environment.
Grealish is a similar player in that he too was at one stage a wandering spirit but the difference was that he rarely ever wastes possession. ‘Passive’ is not in his dictionary, and every time he receives the ball – it seems an opportunity to write his name in the stars. And yet… this is the first season where he produced numbers, 7 goals and 11 assists. How can this be explained?
Well perhaps the major factor has been that Grealish has been a one man team for pretty much all his career. He attracts multiple man markers and thus his game revolves around trying to get other players in the game without necessarily being afforded the opportunity to apply the finishing touch himself. This is also the first season where he’s been asked to play from the left, which has transformed his game in terms of productivity.
Then there is Foden, a boy who has been predestined to be England’s heir to Gascoigne and Rooney ever since he lifted the World U17 trophy with England. Painstakingly developed under the ever-careful eye of Pep Guardiola, Foden has blossomed this season and taken Europe by storm. With the likes of De Bruyne flagging earlier in the season, Foden was one of the cornerstones of Man City’s revival.
He’s not really featured heavily for Southgate, and when he has – it has predominantly been from the right hand side, but there is a growing sense that Foden is the shoe in out of the golden trio and the one earmarked by the English FA as the face of the English game. How Southgate builds the team around him will be interesting – does he partner him up with a fellow playmaker, or use him as a 10/advanced 8? One thing is for sure, Foden will not be as protected as he is in a City shirt… there will be nowhere to hide in terms of expectation levels.
Expect… to see Foden play more often than not, possibly alongside Mount, Grealish or Sancho.
At 2018, England were in the top 5 for most attacking metrics, such as XG, actual goals scored, penalty area touches etc. With Harry Kane and Sterling in their physical primes, that was to be expected and they both were a force to be reckoned with, albeit against mostly cannon fodder opposition until the semi-finals.
2 years later and Kane has had to adapt his game, coming ever deeper and requiring runners to get in behind whilst he feeds them with his precision killer passing. The problem? Rashford apart, there does not seem to be any players of that ilk in the England squad.
Sterling seems to have lost his oomph, and it is difficult to see him starting if he continues to demonstrate the form he has been showing at City. Sancho and Saka are good providers and build up players, but they don’t necessarily thrive in having to continuously run behind their forwards. Haaland is a different kettle of fish to Kane.
In terms of alternative forward options, Calvert-Lewin is England’s only other recognisable centre-forward. He too lacks pace and needs delivery from wide areas and runners to be at his best. It is a shame that room was not made for Olly Watkins as he is a fantastic tactical option that England could really do with, someone who can get on the end of through balls and push the opposition back.
Expect to see Kane start, with Rashford featuring heavily if England are struggling to stretch the opposition.
In conclusion, England are a team that is blessed in the full back department and in a creative sense. They lack pace in the centre forward area and will be reliant on hit and miss players like Rashford and Sterling to give them that thrust in attack. How Southgate perfects that balance between making sure there is enough football IQ in possession whilst not falling into the trap of not hurting teams will be key.
It is not an easy team to manage because whilst the team is full of talent, it doesn’t fit together perfectly or naturally. The synergy in midfield and attack is not really there, whereas in 2018 England had less talent but it was much easier to piece the team together and construct a fixed style of play even if it was not the most glamorous.
I expect England to once again come unstuck against a strong side, with an inability to progress the ball from deeper midfield areas hampering them and for Southgate to struggle to make the right decisions in his attacking choices. If he does manage to get Mount, Grealish and Foden to play together, whilst selecting attacking full backs such as James and Chilwell England have a chance of competing possession wise against the best but is Southgate brave enough to do that?