For the first time in a while England’s national team divide opinion. Previously the consensus had been universally negative, but an unexpected run deep into the tournament by a young, likeable group of players largely untouched by past failures has changed the atmosphere around the squad.
Critics remain however. Partially this is the supporters’ fault: what started as an ironic meme did eventually become a real belief that it was coming home as the favourites began to drop out, antagonising other fans.
A team that was expected to be bad turning out decent was inflated to great by a fairly desperate country, but it’s also fair to say that something about the side did seem different: the passing out from the back, the penalty shoot-out win, the lack of sheer terror at the hint of anything going wrong.
England had an easy road to the semis, but they could only play what was in front of them. England only had six shots on target from open play – Saudi Arabia managed the same in just two games – but their success at set-pieces meant they didn’t necessarily need to score from open play. England lost when they finally came up against a team that demanded they adapt, but they also never had the experience of needing to adapt in those earlier stages unlike France.
Like so many of the teams this summer, it was difficult to pin down exactly how good England were because the competition was so close, so it might be more worthwhile to pin down exactly what they did and how that related to their progress and eventual elimination.
Having qualified mainly using a 4-2-3-1, the coaching staff wanted to build a stronger foundation to work from. “The process was: what gives us the best chance of not conceding many goals? What gives us the best chance of having more control of the game with the ball?” says assistant coach Steve Holland. “They were the two factors.”
“We watched the matches in the Confederations Cup – Germany, Portugal, Mexico, Chile, some good teams – and tried to envisage how we would look against that kind of opposition. We made some decisions and one of those was a back three. We felt we would be better, with and without the ball, with a back three.”
Having worked with Chelsea under Antonio Conte, Holland had experience coaching a 3-4-3 and Southgate set up in the same way for the friendly against Germany last year. “We lost the game, but it was a more than reasonable performance. So the next stage was how to get the midfield balance right. We had good forwards and if we played [3–5-2] we could get two on the pitch, rather than one.”
“The game against Holland in March was the first time you would have seen us play with two offensive ‘No 8s’ rather than a [Jake] Livermore, for example, who’s a good player but more defence‑minded,” Holland says. “Nigeria was the first time we tried Dele [Alli] there – the balance of him running forward, the positions Jesse [Lingard] was taking up and Raheem [Sterling] dropping short. That created problems for our opponent.”
So from then on Southgate set up his team in a 3-5-2 shape, although this has often been noted as a 3-3-2-2 which probably better describes how England actually play, with the two midfielders ahead of Jordan Henderson pushing high up the pitch close to or often beyond the two forwards rather than acting as links between the defence and attack.
As Holland states, “what gives us the best chance of not conceding many goals?” was one of the main things the England staff thought about when altering their shape. The addition of an extra centre-back to the backline was a clear boost to a defence lacking the quality of previous incarnations, with each man having to cover a smaller space and less chance of being outnumbered.
England’s defensive plan was generally to drop back into a 5-3-2 shape, with the two forwards staying central and blocking passes into the midfield.
Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli behind them would sometimes position themselves close to the opposition midfielders (this being most obvious against Croatia, as they tried to limit the space available to Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic) while Jordan Henderson covered behind, but for the most part the three defended zonally, trying to maintain equal distances as they shifted across the pitch.
With two forwards blocking the passes inside and three midfielders close by behind, it was difficult for the opposition to play into the midfield against England, forcing their play wide. Typically when defending in wide areas, a back five defends using a pendulum motion: the wing-back will come out of the backline to meet the opposition, his nearest centre-back will come across to cover behind him, and the rest of the defence moves across to avoid being stretched. England, however, generally avoided this, instead maintaining a flat back five and having the outside midfielders move out to the wings to defend against the opposition widemen. This could vary depending on the situation – for example, if the midfielders had been drawn up the pitch or the opposition were close to them, the wing-backs would step up – however for the most part it was the midfielders who were tasked with stopping crosses, allowing the defence to keep their positions and provide plenty of cover.
Although it served England well in the tournament, it was also responsible for their exit. Against Croatia, Lingard and Alli were paying particular attention to Modric and Rakitic and as a result found it difficult to stop Sime Vrsaljko from marauding down the right. With Vrsaljko expected to miss the game through injury and centre-back Domagoj Vida expected to take his place, perhaps they didn’t foresee this being a problem, but nevertheless he did start and was a constant thorn in England’s side. The slow passing from the Croatians in the first half meant the English midfielders found it easy to shift across, however the pace upped noticeably in the second half, meaning Alli was finding it harder and harder to get across and stop Vrsaljko’s crosses. Southgate could have easily rectified this by moving Raheem Sterling or his replacement Marcus Rashford out to the wing – a position both men are comfortable in – to form a four-man midfield line that would be harder for the Croatians to stretch, but the 3-5-2 remained.
Croatia then got their equaliser by playing down the left before switching play out to the right, with Alli unable to get across and stop Vrsaljko from crossing to Ivan Perisic to finish.
Their winner came from a similar move. The ball went down the right, they then switched the ball out to the left, where Josip Pivaric crossed. His was less accurate than Vrsaljko’s, deflected into the sky by Kyle Walker, but Croatia won the second ball and scrambled home the goal that took them to the final.
The second goal also showed clearly another defensive problem for England: their defenders simply aren’t that good at defending. The formation was partly chosen to wrestle with this fact, giving each man more cover, and while they generally went unexposed, there was still the odd clanger that cost England.
John Stones was most culpable for Croatia’s winner – not live to the bouncing ball so that Mario Mandzukic could steal in behind to finish – and these flaws weren’t exactly unknown before the tournament, with him losing track of Ciro Immobile against Italy. He also has a tendency to stand face on to the ball, meaning he doesn’t have the body shape to run backwards if the opposition play a ball in behind.
Kieran Trippier improved his reputation at the tournament, but that winning Croatian goal also showed his limitations: he was on the losing end of the aerial duel that played in Mandzukic, the right-back not exactly blessed with height, while he was often left scrambling back on the counter due to his lack of athleticism. Much faster, Kyle Walker was typically on hand to cover behind Trippier and more comfortable defending in wide areas than most centre-backs due to him typically playing as a full-back. Walker was arguably England’s best defender at the tournament despite playing in a nominally different position, although he was mainly playing in the same tucked inside role for his club the prior season.
“We’ve watched Manchester City a lot this year and Kyle hasn’t played like he did for Tottenham the previous three years,” Holland explained. “He hasn’t spent all his time 30 to 40 metres down the touchline. He’s been controlling defensive counterattacks. I’m not sure whether we’re arguing about 20 metres here or there, but we’re not asking him to play behind the [opposition] forward. He’s more or less playing where he has for his club all year and been a champion.”
Even he made mistakes though, giving away the penalty in the opening game against Tunisia.
Harry Maguire came away from the World Cup being linked to Manchester United, but like Trippier he often lacked the pace to get back quick enough on counters. The oldest member of the squad, Ashley Young has worked hard with Jose Mourinho to turn himself from the winger we saw at Aston Villa into a full-back to rescue his United career and play at his first World Cup, but it does often show that he isn’t a natural defender both positionally and technically.
Although the backline lacked defensive quality, the midfield and attack fared better, often counter-pressing effectively. All except Jesse Lingard had played under one of Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola so it’s little surprise they were quick and positioned well to harass the opposition when they picked up the ball, and even the United man had the energy and intelligence to join in. Walker and Maguire would also push up into the opposition half to cut off counters. As a result England could keep the opposition pinned back or break forward quickly if the ball was snatched back lower down the pitch.
The more obvious influence Guardiola has had on the team is in the build-up though. While English centre-backs have traditionally been strong defensively but found wanting with their feet, today’s are lacking in their primary role but excellent at the latter. Part of the reason the coaching staff opted for a back three was for “control of the game with the ball” and each man is comfortable enough on the ball to deliver that. Even Jordan Pickford behind them was supposedly chosen over Jack Butland for his quality with the ball at his feet (although personally I would consider this an easy decision as Pickford’s probably the better keeper as well).
With those four at the back it becomes quite difficult to press England as they will tend to outnumber the opposition’s first line of defence or have the technical quality to play around them. The build-up generally revolved around two diamond shapes.
The first had Pickford at its base, the outside centre-backs pulling wide and deep, then Stones at the tip. This gave England two favourable options: either the opposition drop off and Pickford can roll it out to Maguire or Walker, who have time and space to push forward, or the opposition attempt to press, forcing them to stretch out their defensive shape and creating more space elsewhere for an England player to utilise.
Stones was particularly good in this role. Most defenders tend to take up quite regimented positions in the build-up and attempt not to move from them, but Stones is like a midfielder: always on the move trying to find the right angle, while being comfortable on the ball with a good passing range.
The second diamond was formed once England have already played out. Stones is at its base, with Walker and Maguire either side of him, and Henderson at its tip. It was less successful for several reasons.
Firstly, as has been noted by many Liverpool fans, although Henderson’s generally performed well in his adapted role at the base of the midfield – his running from side to side instrumental in Liverpool’s pressing – he’s also a bit timid going forward there. He often struggles to take up the right positions to receive the ball from his defenders and when he does he has a habit of just playing it back to them rather than turning out and playing forward.
This was also on display for England, and his deputy Eric Dier wasn’t exactly much better, having a disastrous time against Colombia. Southgate had good reasons for not wanting to take Adam Lallana (injuries), Jack Wilshere and Harry Winks (lack of playing time), but choosing not to take any of them left a hole in his squad. The back three was chosen to help control the game but England lacked a controlling midfielder to then link the defence and attack.
Secondly, England’s attackers were generally so far forward that the deeper players weren’t able to pass to them. Despite his troubles, Henderson played a crucial role in England’s good first half display against Tunisia – given lots of time on the ball by Tunisia, he would turn and hit raking balls out to the forwards or flanks. However these were still just long balls forward, making them relatively easy to defend against. There was rarely much movement to make it possible to play through the centre, so instead he resorted to long balls.
England’s build-up essentially ensured that the opposition couldn’t press the backline effectively, pinning them back in their own half, however England then struggled to break them down once they got them there. The only thing that really seemed to work was having Maguire or Walker push forward on the ball, forcing the opposition out of their defensive shape to close them down, leaving gaps.
Part of Croatia’s success after a difficult first half was through pressing. England’s centre-backs could still play around the attackers but it couldn’t then progress further than the midfield with Henderson isolated. This led to Croatia’s winner: the defenders playing out but Henderson unable to turn out and Trippier having to hoof it forward, gifting the ball straight back to the Croatians.
“The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield but when we pressed them it turned out that they haven’t,” mocked Vrsaljko after the match.
Without options ahead of them through the centre, England were forced out to the flanks. Having struggled for fitness, Southgate’s decision to start Young ahead of Danny Rose did make sense, however as the United man is right-footed, he was forever trying to cut inside, failing to really stretch the opposition like Rose would have been able to down the outside. This meant most of the play ended up going down the right with Kieran Trippier.
Trippier lacks the athleticism to be able to sprint past players like Rose, but his crossing is excellent and England’s set-up gives him the space to use it. Although England’s midfielders pushing up alongside the forwards makes it difficult to play through the centre, it does keep the defenders occupied. Mainly playing against back fours, having four men along the forward line meant that each opposition defender had to keep track of an England attacker, therefore if the left-back moved out to stop Trippier from crossing, he would have to leave his teammates four against three at the back unless a midfielder dropped in to cover. If the left-back opts not to close Trippier down, then he has the time and space to pick out a cross onto the head of four attackers in the box, with both Alli and Harry Kane good in the air.
England also had two moves that ensured Trippier wouldn’t have to take on the defender if he was closed down. If Trippier was crossing from deeper, Lingard would often make a diagonal run out to the flanks ahead of him, so that rather than having to either squeeze a cross past an onrushing defender or dribbling past him, he could simply play the ball down the line for Lingard to pick up.
If Trippier was higher up the pitch, a teammate – typically Walker – would hover around the edge of the area, allowing the right-back to just play a ball backwards and change the angle rather than squeezing in a cross or going past the defender.
The problem for England was that crosses aren’t usually a particularly useful way of scoring from open play. The slow nature of England’s attacks meant that while there was plenty of attackers in the box, there was plenty of defenders too and they usually had time to prepare themselves for the cross. England’s attackers were essentially hoping that the cross wouldn’t get cut out by a defender or goalkeeper, that it was accurate enough to reach them, and then when it did reach them that they could get something on it – not exactly the easiest task in a crowded box, which goes some way to explaining why England creating so few chances from open play.
Counter-attacks tended to be England’s best opportunities to threaten from open play. The pressing abilities of the attackers meant they were often able to catch their opponents off-guard and spring forward at speed. Although too slow to burst forward with the others, Kane could often hold up any aerial balls and lay it off for a teammate, allowing Sterling, Alli and Lingard to use their pace to race in behind the opposition defence, whereas with their more patient play they were often left with little space against a packed defence. While they carved out several good chances from these counters, their poor finishing meant they generally didn’t take full advantage.
It was a problem that Holland identified early on in the tournament: “If you look at the England team, where are our goals? We’ve been so dependent on Harry … he’s the one player that has the track record at this level that you can bank on. After that, where are our goals? Dele has goals for Tottenham but hasn’t yet managed to do that consistently [for England]. Raheem has goals [for Manchester City] but hasn’t quite transferred that to international level. Jesse has taken time to get goals for Manchester United. He got into great positions [against Tunisia]. Have we better scoring options in that position? I’m not sure we have. We’re going with the players we think have the potential but they’re young men with not many caps. It might just take a bit of time.”
England’s best opportunities came when the player most likely to score from them, Kane, was having to play catch-up with his much faster teammates. Despite finishing as the tournament’s top scorer, England’s captain rarely got the opportunity to shoot from open play except from distance, instead trying to set up chances. With Alli and Lingard pushing up next to him, Kane often took the opportunity to drop off into space between the lines and both he and Sterling would pull out into wide areas and chase down any long balls forward, giving England the choice of going from back to front quickly if necessary.
With Kane dropping off, Sterling was the forward most often tasked with leading the line. His pace made him a danger on the shoulder of the last defender but, as he isn’t really a lethal finisher, the position didn’t suit him. It also meant he was forever receiving the ball with his back to goal, finding it difficult to turn and dribble at defenders.
Sterling was England’s most controversial player. Criticised unfairly by journalists for years over petty off-field non-issues (or more realistically his race and class), he consistently received the lowest ratings in the BBC’s player rater polls, leading to a reactionary response among certain quarters that he had actually been one of England’s best players due to his intelligent movement. There’s elements of truth in both views: most people watching football tend to just follow the ball and Sterling offered little in possession, missing chances like an open goal against Tunisia or picking up the ball and falling over when challenged, however his movement was making it possible for England to play through the midfield, keeping an open line into his feet while leading the line then sprinting back to receive the ball in space.
When he had no one to lay the ball off to, Sterling would often hold onto it and draw a foul, winning the free-kicks so important to England’s success. Evidently, he was important to England, but to many people this just looks like sideways passes and being out-muscled – this isn’t the Sterling of Man City and Liverpool, scampering past multiple players, but England’s set-up wasn’t designed to take advantage of his best attributes. Sterling may not have set the tournament alight, but that’s also not necessarily his fault.
England struggled to score from open play but that still didn’t stop them from progressing to the semi-finals, instead getting by on set-pieces.
In February Southgate travelled to the United States to watch basketball and American football games to see if there was anything he could add to his repertoire and presumably he must have noted the way players in both sports block their opponents to stop their runs. This would be a foul in open play in football, but at set-pieces it’s far easier to get away with and England took full advantage at the World Cup.
Lining up close together in what became known as the “love train”, England’s players made it near impossible to man mark them as there was no space for the opposition to stand between them. When the ball was about to be struck, they would then all sprint off in different directions, with the defenders unable to tell which was their man or where he was going, all while having to keep an eye on the ball.
England got their first against Tunisia with four attackers going up against just three man-markers as Tunisia used a mixed system. Henderson then sprinted to the near post and two of the markers followed, leaving just one defender against Kane, Stones and Maguire. Stones’ header was saved but Kane was on hand for the rebound.
Their second was dealt with better by Tunisia, who took to simply holding the England players. Maguire was unable to get good contact with his header but Kane had again escaped his marker to finish at the back post.
For their opener against Panama, England were slightly more sly. Five men bunched together in the middle then ran to the front and back posts, leaving the space where they started free. Stones was being marked on the edge of the area, but Young stood between him and his marker, holding him back so Stones could sprint into the gap his teammates had vacated to score.
They also used a trick from a free-kick for the fourth. Henderson ran towards the ball rather than into the box like all his teammates, getting the space to float a cross to the back post, where Kane squared it and Stones pushed the ball over the line.
Against Sweden, Sterling stood at the front of the train, with his man-marker smaller than the rest. When everyone else ran off in different directions, Maguire simply stood behind Sterling, comfortably able to beat the smaller man’s marker to score.
These goals were also made possible by Trippier’s excellent crossing and he was rewarded with England’s final goal of the tournament: a direct free-kick into the top corner against Croatia.
Perceptions of England’s World Cup tend to be binary. They are either fearless young lions bringing pride back to a nation with style, or set-piece merchants relying on Kane’s tap-ins and Maguire’s big slab head. The same goes for their players: Stones is the second coming of either Franz Beckenbauer or Titus Bramble, Sterling is either tripping over his feet or reincarnating Johan Cruyff with his intelligence.
The reality is somewhere in between. Stones is excellent at playing out from the back but needs to improve his defending, Sterling is excellent at picking up the ball but could do with improving his finishing. The existence of these flaws doesn’t negate their strengths and them being very talented doesn’t mean they are perfect. In not wanting to lose face over their opinions, those watching don’t seem to fully appreciate this English side for what they actually are: a good young side who can rightly be proud of their progress but are still not world beaters. It’s perfectly acceptable to be good at some things and bad at others.