Why Do England Play 3-4-3?

Getty Images/Mike Egerton

From Raheem Sterling’s tap-in against the Czech Republic to Mason Mount’s tidy finish in Kosovo, England scored 38 goals across just ten games in 2019. They hadn’t registered more in a calendar year since 1908. There were 7-0, 6-0 and 5-0 wins; what wasn’t to like?

In the middle of these rampant demolition jobs, capitulation to the Netherlands in extra-time sent England out of the Nations League finals. The bronze medal match was a goalless draw with Switzerland. In truth, Gareth Southgate’s side were toothless in attack — only spared from going two full 120-minute matches without scoring a single goal by Marcus Rashford’s penalty against the Dutch.

While England did then regroup in the Autumn in order to make those 6-0s and 7-0s possible, they were now facing inferior opposition. Tournaments aren’t won and lost by how many you can knock past Montenegro. So Southgate had a rethink. The three-man backline at the World Cup had — for the most part, at least — successfully papered over the cracks of England’s very ordinary backline. But since Russia, a front three, often of Sterling, Rashford and Harry Kane, had looked genuinely world-class. How best to marry the two? In 2020, after ten months to ponder, deliberate and philosophise, Southgate set his heart on trying something entirely new: 3-4-3.

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Whether the new system was the right move, whether it has worked and whether Southgate should proceed with it, this was at least an example of a manager judging international football correctly. In a non-tournament, non-Covid year, an international manager spends five periods of about eight days with their players. That’s less than 50 days a year. Some seem to think this gives the likes of Southgate enough time to heavily improve players, cultivate a discernible style of football, and do so all without injuries, dropouts and other distractions that only make such improvement harder. They’re deluded.

While Belgium and France do sit at the very summit of the world rankings, they have also conceded some calamitous goals in the past couple of years, as well as falling to a 5-2 defeat to Switzerland and a 2-0 defeat to Finland, respectively. They didn’t lose their positions at the top; no one was good enough to dislodge them. International football is pragmatic, reactionary and prone to drastic changes in both results and personnel from one international camp to the next.

“They’re more about pace; I feel we do miss that at times.”

Jack Grealish on Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling

Why did England change formation? Yes, they were playing poor opposition in the Euro qualifiers when they adopted 4-3-3 — we’ve covered that. But even against the bigger sides like Denmark and the Belgians who England faced in the Nations League this year, it seems quite likely they would have conceded too many goals had they chosen to stick not twist.

Another common criticism in the past few months — and a lot of this graced the free-for-all battleground of Twitter — is the conservative selection of players in the midfield two. Understandably, with Phil Foden, James Maddison and other attacking prodigies waiting in the wings (and sometimes shoehorned onto the wings), some have felt England are unlikely to produce enough chances without players who link midfield and attack. Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice are excellent operators at what they do, but they won’t knit play together against good sides.

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Last year, for all their remarkable attacking output, England conceded way too many chances to Montenegro and the Czechs on the counter, as well as conceding three goals in a single night against Kosovo. Against better opposition, that would have cost them dearly. Southgate has moved to 3-4-3 in order to solidify defensively. So, with one midfielder lost to that system — as an extra defender comes in — the midfielders he does retain are unlikely to be purely No 10 types. Football might be entertaining, but it also has to be realistic. Teams that win tournaments are balanced; they aren’t naïve.

But while defensive assuredness is crucial in large games, so is having players that can retain and use the ball efficiently. For all of their popping up in pockets of space and pressing tirelessly off the ball, England’s World Cup attacking midfielders Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard are not players suited to seeing a lot of possession and building slow, sustained attacks patiently. Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and (to some extent) Mason Mount are.

Grealish is the man of the moment, and the level of love he’s being shown at present has clearly come from somewhere. In his case, it comes from (a) looking head and shoulders above all of his Aston Villa teammates week in week out, (b) being largely ignored as both a wing and central attacking option by Gareth Southgate for so long, and (c) taking his chance with open arms when Southgate did eventually put faith in him. Besides his debut — a 16-minute cameo in a tough match in Copenhagen — Grealish’s only other England caps came last month against Wales and more recently against the Republic of Ireland, Iceland and in Belgium. He was England’s man of the match in three of the four. If ball retention is so pivotal to deciding the winner in England’s make-or-break tournament matches — and it has been their downfall over the years (defeats to Italy at Euro 2012 and Croatia in 2018 come to mind) — then Grealish must now remain an integral part of this team.

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This leads on to an area in which Southgate must be criticised. For a man who speaks so well, he has unleashed a level of hypocrisy in the last year or so. He maintains regularly that he won’t deploy a player in a position he does not play for his club. On Grealish, Southgate has mentioned that he plays out wide on the left for Villa — which he does — and has also played as a No 10 before — which he has. Could Grealish drop in and play as a No 8 in a 3-4-3 midfield two? Despite all the signs suggesting he absolutely could, the England boss ruled it out. But had Kyle Walker played in a back three before he tried him there at the World Cup? No. That was the innovation not of Pep Guardiola at club-level but of Southgate himself. Mason Mount, who he did play at No8 this month, hadn’t played there since during his youth career.

Grealish isn’t a touchline-hugging winger anyway. He cuts inside. That, and his long yards of ball-carrying, was what so impressed England fans in October and November. If the manager is to persist with 3-4-3 — and he probably will at this stage — Grealish must be trialled in the middle of the park. Leaving two of Sterling, Rashford and Jadon Sancho on the bench would be criminal. Again, Southgate must strike a balance. Get the best players in, but don’t leave the team looking lopsided.

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England were without Sterling and Rashford through injury this month, and so had to play attacking midfielders out wide. It actually added another, more technical, dimension particularly against Iceland, but when Grealish spoke to EnglandFootball.org after the match, he was mindful of how well the pace and directness of Sterling and Rashford serve England when they are fit.

“We’re obviously different players to the likes of Raheem and Marcus,” he said. “They’re probably more about pace; I feel like we do miss that at times. And that’s what we probably have to try and bring to the game — you know, the likes of me, Mason [Mount] and Phil [Foden] when we play.”

A final point on Grealish — who seems to dominate football talk the world over at the moment — relates to his freakish ability to earn so many free kicks. Last season, he annihilated the Premier League’s previous record for most fouled player in a single season. Indeed, many of England’s free kicks this month were won by his footballing nous. From Foden’s free kick nodded home by Rice against Iceland, England profited from one such tumble in a tangible way. Recall that it was Kane’s similar ability to entice defenders into illegal challenges that so effectively broke up play on that tense yet terrific meeting with Colombia two years ago.

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While the pairing of Henderson and Rice didn’t look outclassed in any of the meetings with Denmark and Belgium, neither did they unlock the defence and manufacture any goalscoring chances. Just four goals against in those four games — two of them penalties — is a decent record. But at the other end, a feeble two goals scored only dampens expectation. Once again, the balance isn’t quite right, but neither is it miles off.

A return to 4-3-3 emerges as the best option among a number of formations that would suit England in some ways and inhibit them in others. England would then get that midfield balance, playing a defensive-minded No 4, a shuttling No 8 pivot, and gaining the place for that Grealish or Foden figure to come in, link the play, and create chances further forward. Defensively, they would lose their rapid, right-sided emergency defender in Kyle Walker. A centre-back pair would replace a trio. Looking at England’s options in that position, that doesn’t inspire confidence. It evidently concerned Southgate too. The right-footed Harry Maguire next to left-footed Tyrone Mings? Against Bulgaria maybe, but against a Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann counterattack in the knockout stages next summer? You can picture Southgate deciding: “Yeah, maybe not…”

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Yet while England were — and still would be — defensively suspect in a 4-3-3, they did use their all-rounder centre-forward Harry Kane alongside the lightning-quick Sterling and Rashford to great effect. It didn’t matter that Spain came back with two second-half goals in Seville in October 2018. That frightening front three combination had bagged the Three Lions three goals in the opening 38 minutes. Kosovo may have scored three at St Mary’s last year, including one after 36 seconds, but England scored five. One down in Montenegro? No problem: they secured a 5-1 win. England still have a front three now, but it just isn’t fed anywhere near as successfully. Compelling evidence that they could have continued mastering their craft of outscoring the opposition had they kept the previous formation.

Of course, with just three World Cup qualifiers to come next March, Southgate has pretty much run out of time to build anything like a hardy-enough return to 4-3-3. And so, barring what would be a real shock, England will approach the European Championships playing 3-4-3. Hopefully it’s now clearer why that’s the case.

Whether it should be the case is a different matter entirely.

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