by Dom Smith
England took ten defenders to both of their first two tournaments under Gareth Southgate. This time they’ve taken nine. Some have said this may signal a surprise change to a more attacking formation at the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. Sorry to bring the mood down, but it really doesn’t.
The squad includes the likes of James Maddison, the Hipster’s Choice, and Conor Gallagher, sure to become the Nation’s Darling when the England social media channels inevitably realise that clipping up his cheeky chappy attitude into ten-second clips is the Instagram gift that keeps on giving. But the inclusions of Maddison and Gallagher do not signal the end of Southgateism.
If this were any other manager, it would not be considered a ballsy squad, but in Southgateland it is. Gallagher and Maddison could easily have been left out in favour of an extra centre-back or another left-back or for James Ward-Prowse. But they weren’t. Maddison couldn’t have done any more to get in. He’s been superb for Leicester City. But Gallagher should know that he’s fortunate to be included. He’s played well in his four caps for England, but his Chelsea performances of late have been less convincing.Embed from Getty Images
So with Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Maddison and Gallagher all attacking midfielders by trade, and making up over 15 per cent of the squad, anyone would be forgiven for thinking the manager has had a change of heart. Is he suddenly about to ditch 3-4-3 and revert to a fast-paced 4-3-3 or a progressive 4-2-3-1 system?
The answer is no. This 26-man England squad is more attacking than previous groups, but the reason for that is the lack of elite-level options in defence. There has scarcely been a time in England’s modern history in which their defenders were so distinctly average. Tyrone Mings and Marc Guéhi have been fine for Southgate, but they wouldn’t have had a look in when Southgate himself was a player, nor in many if any of the intervening years since.
Injuries to two of England’s best full-backs, Chelsea duo Ben Chilwell and Reece James, have further weakened Southgate’s defence. Look how far into the Manchester United wilderness Harry Maguire has ended up. Look at Trent Alexander-Arnold’s struggles in both attack and defence this term. Both are heading for the World Cup — as is Kyle Walker, only now recovering from injury. Needs must.
And so with England’s full-back areas depleted by injury and their centre-back options largely off-form and a step down from previous eras, Southgate will have to mitigate the risk of his side being seriously exposed.
What that sadly means is playing more defenders. Safety in numbers. That sort of thing. It means almost certainly continuing to trust the 3-4-3 system that has defined Southgate’s whole reign where things like waistcoats and social awareness have only defined certain periods. 3-4-3 is the Southgate system, and it would be a remarkable turn-up for the books if he deviates away from that in Qatar.Embed from Getty Images
A great deal is asked of the midfield pairing in this system, and Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice were exceptional as a partnership throughout the Euros. It was a first major tournament for both. Phillips is included in the squad despite only playing 54 minutes of football since recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in September. That shows how much Southgate is sold on his quality already. Game time and form has not impacted the question of whether to include him.
But it may end up being Jude Bellingham who partners Rice. The 19-year-old has been stellar and shown real leadership in the first half of the season in a very average Borussia Dortmund side. He tackles, disrupts, passes and assists. England fans already knew that about him.
Now they know he scores goals too. He has nine goals in 22 games for the Black and Yellow this season. It bodes well for England. Especially when the main criticism of Southgate’s 3-4-3 is that the system has no space for a No 10, meaning no roaming playmaker in the mould of Maddison or Mount. If those players want to play, they have to move elsewhere. Bellingham could incorporate the playmaking into his double pivot role. Bellingham cannot be all things to all people, but he can be a lot of things for Southgate. Well-rounded is something he’ll always be.
Because of Bellingham’s excellent form coupled with Phillips’s lack of game time, many fans will understandably be gearing up for the tournament almost taking for granted that the teenager has done enough to start. In Southgate’s eyes he still may not. Phillips has proven his worth in a tournament. Rightly or wrongly, that will carry weight in the Manchester City man’s favour. It’s a fascinating position on the pitch, and a tough one to call.Embed from Getty Images
England will set up with John Stones, Harry Maguire plus one other in defence. It will be Ben White or Eric Dier if Walker is not fit enough for the early group games. If he is, Walker plays. Loyalty can go too far in football, and that has been said of the Maguire-Stones-Walker back three for England. But France have been crying out for some consistency over the last few years. Their recent struggles under Didier Deschamps could have been eased had he not changed his team round with such a ferocious churn rate. Only Oliver Giroud knows what Deschamps’s unwavering trust looks like. That’s one player.
Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw are now far and away England’s best full-backs given the injuries to Chilwell and James. So they will flank Rice and his partner. Ahead of them it’s anyone’s guess. Southgate has been loyal to Raheem Sterling, to Mason Mount, and to Bukayo Saka. And in Phil Foden he has one of the country’s most talented players. He can’t play them all. It may come down to which two play best alongside Harry Kane.
We can be sure of two things. Firstly, that Southgate knows his starting line-up by now. Secondly, that he will adopt a 3-4-3 system. Maddison is a luxury player in the manager’s view. His inclusion is exciting, and he may well get match minutes this winter. But England will look similar to how they looked at Euro 2020. Southgate’s inferred motto to this point has been ‘Trust the process’. That’s hardly going to change a week before England’s opener. Let’s see if it works.