key tactical decisions facing Gareth Southgate

Euro 2020 semi-final could be shaped by whether the manager opts for a back three and his choice on the right of the attack

To three or not to three?

The biggest and most obvious question for Gareth Southgate is whether to stick with the back four that got them through the group and beat Ukraine or, as they did against Germany, switch to a back three. There were two good reasons to make the change against Germany. Their wing-backs had excelled against Portugal and so it made sense to match up shape-for-shape and look to engage them as high up the pitch as possible – a ploy that worked so well the influence of Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens was minimal. In addition, given how Kai Havertz drops deep from the forward line, it was useful for a centre-back being able to follow him without the risk of leaving huge holes in the defensive line.

Against Ukraine, whose wing-backs had been key to their victory over Sweden, Southgate was far more proactive. Opting for a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1, depending how you want to categorise Mason Mount’s role) left the Ukraine wing-backs essentially playing chicken: push up and they risked leaving Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho untended, sit back and England were almost guaranteed to dominate midfield – and then it turned out Sterling and Sancho had the beating of Oleksandr Karavaev and Vitaliy Mykolenko anyway.

Then again, Joakim Mæhle and Jens Stryger Larsen should offer more attacking threat than that pair (it might have been different had Andriy Shevchenko done what he did against Sweden and used Oleksandr Zinchenko at left wing-back.)

The decision probably comes down to whether Southgate believes England can dominate midfield sufficiently to play on the front foot. Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg are far less likely to pass their way round England than were Toni Kroos and Leon Goretzka (plus Mats Hummels and Matthias Ginter stepping up from centre-back) so that may tip the balance towards the three, but Denmark are a better-organised side than Germany.

’Tis in my memory locked

England and Denmark met twice last year in the Nations League: a broadly uneventful 0-0 in Copenhagen and a 1-0 win for Denmark at Wembley, a game defined by Harry Maguire’s 31st-minute red card. At the time, he was seemingly unsettled by his conviction in Greece on charges of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and attempted bribery, against which he is appealing, and both his yellow cards were thoroughly avoidable. The dismissal brought a spell of panic from England, when Kyle Walker was unfortunate to concede a penalty after Jordan Pickford had come flying recklessly off his line.

Quite how much can be learned from those games is unclear. Denmark played 4-3-3 in each and looked very reliant on Christian Eriksen for creativity, while England were uninspired with a back three. There’s a good chance the teams will be in the reverse formations this time. And there has been nothing in the tournament so far to suggest Maguire or Pickford is likely to be prone to similar rushes of blood.

His sword … seem’d i’ the air to stick

Southgate spoke before the Ukraine game of wanting England to regain the threat from set plays that had helped proper them to the World Cup semi-final and they promptly scored with headers from a free kick and a corner. John Stones, who hit the post against Scotland, Maguire and Kane will always pose some kind of threat in the air, but it was notable how comfortable the Danish back three of Simon Kjær, Andreas Christensen and Jannik Vestergaard looked against the Czech Republic, who had previously been a persistent danger in the air. The Czech goal was the result of a low cross and given England will be forced to play wide to bypass the central block of Delaney and Højbjerg that may be something they have to consider.

Hover o’er me with your wings

If it is a back three, Walker will probably play as the right centre-back with Trippier at wing-back. Assuming Sterling retains his position on the left, that leaves a doubt only about the position on the front right of the attacking trio. If it is a back four, the likelihood is that Southgate will stick with 10 of the 11 that played against Ukraine, with the only question on the right flank.

With the back three, there is an option to move Mount to the right, where he played in the second half of the Nations League game against Belgium at Wembley, probably the best 45 minutes England played last year. He may not run beyond Kane as instinctively as other members of the squad, but his defensive qualities could be vital against Mæhle, a right-footed right-back who has been a revelation playing on the wrong side in this tournament.

If it’s a back four, Mount will be at the front of midfield, which leaves four options. Phil Foden and Jack Grealish can probably be discounted, at least as starters, because they prefer the left, and Sterling has excelled on that side, linking up well with Luke Shaw. So it could be Sancho, who is quick and would pose defensive problems for Mæhle, or, more likely, Bukayo Saka, assuming he has recovered from the knock sustained in training before the Ukraine game. He offers attacking thrust, dovetails pleasingly with Kalvin Phillips, and has the defensive nous to track Mæhle.

 

 

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