With the absence of Maguire, England are expected to line up in a 3-4-3 with the emphasis on pragmatism – as is the Southgate way. Mings is likely to feature as the left sided centre back, with Trippier as a right wing back and Phillips and Rice operating as the double pivots. Further afield it is difficult to predict exactly how England will lineup, but we expect to see Kane lead the line with one of either Sterling or Rashford either side of him, and one out of Mount, Foden and Grealish to make the cut.
England will therefore look to defend in a 5-2-1-2 with the wing backs coming back to form a back five. Lest we forget, England tried this tactic before in the 2018 World Cup and it failed. Perisic dominated Tripper/Walker, getting the equalising goal by coming inside, brushing off Walker and causing havoc in the box. England would be advised to select James to face Perisic who will be licking his lips for this game.
Rebic has quick feet but is not as dynamic as his counter part. He is very versatile so expect to see him roam across the final third and avoid his man-marker if he is being kept quiet. Up front the loss of Mandzukic is massive, there is no longer that world-class presence and reliability but in Bruno Petkovic they possess an incredibly skilful forward who can take on any centre back or full back 1 v 1, and bring others into play.
If England do select Phillips and Rice in midfield, they will struggle to grab a stranglehold on the game against a midfield of Brozovic, Kovacic and Modric. Sitting back against that midfield may be inviting danger as Modric and Kovacic start driving and probing… exploring the respective half spaces… but having said that I would be a lot more concerned if Rakitic was also part of the midfield as he has a reputation for goals from midfield.
To defeat England’s low block, Vrsaljko will be pushed forward and give Croatia width from the right side. Most of their attacks will go down this side for the final ball, with Rebic coming off the flank and joining in central areas. Gvardiol is more defensive on nature down the left and Perisic will be given free licence to operate as winger or come inside.
If England were to counter attack, the space down Vrsaljko’s flank is probably the best place to target and probably why Rashford or Sterling are rumoured to start. When England commit numbers forward, their shape will resemble more of a 2-3-1-4, with the wing backs acting as wingers… Sterling and Kane at centre forward, and the CAM acting as the link between the double pivot in midfield and attack.
Off the ball, expect Croatia to utilise a 4-5-1 formation and like England, demonstrate a mixture of high press and low block shapes, depending on the context of the game. It should be noted however that Croatia’s defence post World Cup has become one of the most porous in Europe. They had the worst expected goals against record in the UEFA Nations League Group A of 13.8 (in 2020/21).
Predictions… It is hard to imagine England losing at home in their opening fixture but neither can I foresee England blowing Croatia away in their opening fixture. England have a long tradition of starting tournaments rather slowly, so the best bet here is to favour a draw with both teams trying to feel their way into the tournament.
As we saw against England, Austria are not a team to be underestimated. With players like Sabitzer in their ranks, they are a team that loves to dominate the ball and they average close to 60% possession during 2020/21 and this number was close to what they achieved against England (albeit a weakened English outfit).
Expect them to field a 4-5-1 which shifts into a 2-4-4 attacking structure as they flood forward, overwhelming North Macedonia in the central areas, relying mostly on their full backs or wing backs to hold the width. Their play is reminiscent of Villarreal at times in the Europa, lots of short sharp passes in central areas, with plenty of movement in and around the strikers – attacking as a collective.
North Macedonia will usually operate a 3 at the back system against a superior opponent but do not be fooled. They do not defend deep in a low block and have a healthy PPDA of 11, putting them alongside the top nations at the Euro’s. This is partly because their wing backs are offensive, so to defend deep would negate their game offensively and also because they’re not the best 1 v 1 so to make them defend more than attack would be futile.
Expect therefore to see the back 3 become a back 4 shifted to the side of the pitch the attack is taking place and for the wing back on the opposite side to remain further afield waiting for the long pass on the counterattack. Expect the midfield trio behind the strikers to all come back and take turns in being the presser, whilst the other two cut passing lanes into central areas or go out wide depending on ball position.
Prediction… North Macedonia are more sophisticated tactically than many give them credit for. They will not be pushovers but Austria are a disciplined unit themselves and will seek to dominate the game. Would not be surprised if this ends up a score draw but think Austria should edge this.
Since Koeman left, the growing enthusiasm behind this Netherlands regen project seems to have dissipated. Nevertheless, most Dutch fans are just thankful to be competing at a major international tournament and there are enough promising players in this squad to make them a compelling watch for the neutral nevertheless.
When Netherlands have the ball, expect them to shift from their customary 4-2-3-1 into a 3-3-3-1 formation, with a target man up top and the midfield taking it in turns to drop deep to pick it off the stretched out centre backs, with full backs holding the width but not necessarily bombing on with abandon. The Dutch like to hold on to the ball and average close to 60% possession, so expect plenty of ball circulation.
When Ukraine do not have the ball expect them to adopt a mid to low block 4-4-2 without the ball, as they tend to do when faced against stronger opponents. They keep their shape and do not press unless the opposition has just won the ball in their own defensive third. The 4-4-2 will free up the likes of Malinovskiy to remain closer to the striker and initiate any counter attacks once possession has been retrieved.
When they have the ball, Ukraine adopt a 4-1-2-3 shape, with their wide men hugging the touchlines and the advanced midfielders looking to both support the pivot and the centre forward, whilst ensuring they bring the wide men into it. Expect to see a lot of work rate from these players in the half spaces as if they are ineffective – the team will not function.
Predictions… tough to call this game. The Dutch have not really built a side which truly knows its philosophy or personnel but it does possess some quality in the form of Depay, De Jong, De Ligt and Wijnaldum. On the other hand, Ukraine have a team which is more organised and plays to its strengths. There could be a upset on the cards.