Why England Must Be Brave and Stick With a Back Four

by Dom Smith

It was only Iran. That is what many will say. Yet England played so well against the world’s 20th-ranked side that it feels as though there is genuine vindication for those long-begging Gareth Southgate to unshackle his attackers and ditch his three-man backline. And for Southgate himself for actually doing so.

Will he abandon this superb 4-3-3 for the United States match on Friday? Will he persevere with it for now but ditch it once England face genuinely spooky opposition in the knockouts? There is always a distinct possibility of this. But he shouldn’t. He should stick, not twist.

England must not base their tournament on one trouncing of a B-class side who had a shocking off-day and made their famed defensive record look mendacious. However, there were giddying aspects of this rampant England opener that definitely could be effective if England reach the business end of this World Cup.

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It scarcely needs more mention that Jude Bellingham, England’s 19-year-old starlet, is quickly becoming one of the world’s most complete midfielders. He headed into the tournament with a predicted transfer valuation of £175m according to CIES, and that soared another £20m after his goal opened the scoring for England and his tireless, all-action display rivalled Bukayo Saka’s as a candidate for the FIFA man of the match award.

Bellingham partnered Mason Mount, with both playing as roving No8s just ahead of single defensive midfielder Declan Rice. In some ways it resembles the midfield Southgate’s England played at Russia, with Jordan Henderson protecting the more advanced duo of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.

However, Alli and Lingard ran in behind the opposition’s defence much more than both Mount and Bellingham. Mount is one of the Premier League’s most effective pressers, while Bellingham can drop back and help Rice turn over possession before galloping forward and becoming England’s fifth attacker.

In that sense, England’s midfield three against Carlos Queiroz’s Iran was a much more effective and balanced trio than that which reached the World Cup semi-finals in Russia. Southgate must be brave now and persist with it, even if England face a France, Brazil or Argentina later in this tournament. Bravery would be rewarded.

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He must trust Bellingham’s ubiquitous game and Rice’s robustness. He must also trust that his side can defend from the front. If his forwards, midfielders and full-backs are positionally astute, he does not need an extra centre-back. Harry Maguire and John Stones are good enough individuals and form an experienced enough partnership that the addition of a Kyle Walker or Ben White or Eric Dier should be resisted.

Ardent Southgate lovers, of which there are precious few left, may argue that he has shown perfectly over his six-year tenure that 3-4-3 is England’s best formation for tournament football. It is pragmatic. It limits England’s opponents to very few chances. It allows England to do just enough going forward that they, more often than not, win the game and progress.

However, Southgate is not wedded to 3-4-3. He has changed his system and refreshed his line-ups often enough for this to be clear. What he is wedded to is pragmatism itself — and in international football, that’s a shrewd way to be.

Every World Cup or Euros winner since the turn of the millennium has been pragmatic one way or another. They have either prioritised set pieces, or built upon a strong counterattacking base, or adopted a possession-based game in order to defend by depriving the opposition of the ball.

Pragmatism is savvy at tournaments. You need a Manchester City edge in order to win a 38-game Premier League season. You don’t need that at a World Cup where you will only play a maximum of seven matches. You need a strong foundation, an effective Plan B, and a little sprinkle of luck. England’s 4-3-3 is a strong foundation.

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England have learned to maximise set-piece opportunities. In Russia, nine of their 12 goals came from set-piece opportunities. They’ve also learned that they don’t need to create a huge number of opportunities to win tournament games, as long as their shooting is efficient and they concede even fewer chances.

They scored six goals from just 2.13 xG against Iran. Against Ukraine in the Euro 2020 quarter-final in Rome, England won 4–0 despite only amassing 2.15 xG. Efficiency is key. What works with a back-three can be applied to a 4-2-3-1. These are principles, tenets, that supersede slight system changes.

It is the recurring curse of England in tournaments that the journey ends as soon as they come up against a better midfield. So often it’s a European midfield three sadistically pulling apart England’s midfield two. See Italy in the Euro 2020 final last year, and countless other examples.

The 4-3-3 that Southgate deployed against Iran can match the best midfields in this tournament and avoid getting overrun. Yes, it was only Iran. But this was the same Iran side whose striker leads the line for Porto, who beat Uruguay in September, who headed into the opener having lost just twice in their previous 21 matches. England completed 716 passes in the match — the second-most by a single team in any World Cup match since 1966, and the outright most in a game that didn’t go to extra-time. They enjoyed 78 percent of possession; you started to wonder whether this was the secondcoming of Guardiola’s Barça. Then you remembered. It was only Iran.

Rice and Mount are 23. Bellingham is 19. Such youth, and yet this feels like an experienced trio. England’s new-look midfield seems unlikely to collapse in on itself against one of the world’s best sides. Southgate should be courageous and use them again. The pros outweigh the cons.

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