How a tactical switch to a defensive back-three augurs well for England at EURO 2020
Saturday, 3 July 2021
Gareth Southgate's switch to a back three is a measure of England's versatility for team reporter Simon Hart.
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"We know if we pick that system and pick the players we picked, if we don't win the game we are dead." So said Gareth Southgate summing up the stark, result-is-everything environment in which an England manager works.
The system he was referring to was the 3-4-3 set-up he adopted to match Germany's formation in Tuesday's 2-0 UEFA EURO 2020 round of 16 win.
England had reached the semi-finals of Russia 2018 with a back three. Yet prior to facing Germany, they had played every match of this calendar year with a back four. Moreover, they had a 75% win ratio from 32 matches with a back four; in 25 previous matches with a three it was 48%.
How it unfolded
In his post-match reflections, Southgate explained that he had tried out the back three during England's fixtures last autumn which ensured that "the players could slot into it pretty quickly this week". Kieran Trippier, on the right, is experienced in the role both from Russia 2018 and also with Atlético de Madrid this last season, and Southgate sees his set-piece deliveries as an asset too.
As for Luke Shaw, he grew into Tuesday's game, providing more of the creativity required in the role when pushing higher in the second half as the whole team gained in confidence. And as former England right-back Micah Richards pointed out on BBC Radio 5 Live, when substitute Jack Grealish began wandering inside it gave Shaw the freedom to attack out wide – hence he was in the right place to deliver the cross for Raheem Sterling's opening goal.
Southgate's own verdict was: "We wanted to be, man-for-man, aggressive in our pressure. The wing-backs really did that well and set the tone."
A leaf out of Venables' book
Explaining why he wished to match up with Germany, Southgate said: "We knew the tactical problem that the wing-backs high causes you. When you've got players who are evenly matched, if you give them a tactical advantage as well then that's a real problem."
This is precisely what Southgate saw his old England manager, Terry Venables, do for England's 4-1 group-stage victory over the Netherlands at EURO '96 and again for the semi-final against Germany (the last time, incidentally, England had entered a EURO finals fixture with a back three prior to Tuesday).
A chat with former England winger Chris Waddle on the morning of Tuesday's match highlighted the sense of Southgate drawing from a lesson learned under Venables. "Gareth learned a lot from Terry," Waddle told EURO2020.com. "He's remembered things, and Terry always used to say that if you ever play a good side, match them up and it's down to the individual battles then."
Waddle, who is commentating on England's matches for 5 Live at this EURO, was in the first England team to field a 3-5-2 at a major tournament, at the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. Manager Bobby Robson switched from a 4-4-2 for a group game against the Netherlands. Robson chose that formation to avoid a repeat of the problems England had faced with two centre-backs, Tony Adams and Mark Wright, when losing 3-1 to the Netherlands of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten at the 1988 EURO. England would later kick off their semi-final against Germany in a three before reverting to a four later in the match.
Waddle approves of such versatility, remembering: "We always used to play 4-4-2 years ago and we never adapted to other teams who had one up front and three in midfield. We were always chasing and working harder than other teams to get the ball back."
At Italia '90, centre-back Paul Parker filled the right wing-back role despite not having played at full-back for three years. Mark Wright had played at sweeper only three times before for his club, Derby County. It helps today that players are so used to different systems.
Southgate was delighted with the composure showed by his defenders en route to a fourth clean sheet, pointing to "a nice balance of being brave with the ball, to keep possession in our own half at times and our defenders are exceptional at that".
Whether he sticks with this system in Rome on Saturday remains to be seen – especially given the fact Ukraine made their own switch from 4-4-3 to a back three with wing-backs for their win against Sweden. Watch this space.