Gareth Southgate – England – Tactical Analysis – World Cup 2022

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Three games down and England have made it out of Group B with seven points, on nine goals scored and two allowed. It sounds dominant, but skepticism remains among fans across the country as to how the Three Lions will react against a higher-quality, more expansive footballing side. USA were a tough matchup: tight marking and possession-oriented. Yet, England’s squad should still have blasted past the young Americans without too much trouble. Senegal next, and without Sadio Mané, they also lack world class talent; but their high pressing game and expert transitional attacks make them a dangerous opponent in the Round of 16. Here is our analysis of Gareth Southgate’s England at the 2022 World Cup, after the group stage.

System of Play: 4-2-3-1

England have flipped between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 at the 2022 World Cup, depending on whether Southgate uses Mason Mount’s advanced role in midfield, or Jordan Henderson as more of a shuttling presence. Having experimented with both a 3-4-3 and 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid at the Euros, many would have expected Southgate to stick to his trusted back-three. The six-game winless run at the end of the UEFA Nations League might have caused an urge to change; and it paid dividends on matchday one against Carlos Queiroz’ Iran.

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Kyle Walker’s pre-tournament injury might also have caused some doubt in Southgate’s mind surrounding the 3-4-3, as he would have been the undeniable choice on the right side of the back-three. Walker made a swift return against Wales in the final group stage match, but Trippier likely remains the in-form candidate, and a back-four remains likely to continue given the electricity of Jude Bellingham in midfield.

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Starting from the back, Jordan Pickford remains in goal. Shouts for both Nick Pope and Aaron Ramsdale were vocal before the competition had begun, but Pickford had managed to quell those arguments more than ever before. Pickford’s form at the start of the 2022-23 campaign had been immaculate for Everton, and he never looked in doubt of his position. It is however worth noting that Pickford’s ability to play out from the back can often become overstated. His distribution is the second most direct in the Premier League, launching over 51% of his passes. This is in stark contrast to Nick Pope at Newcastle (36.1%) and Aaron Ramsdale (36.7%) at Arsenal, both of whom play out far better than anyone will give them credit for.

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Harry Maguire and John Stones are the unsurprising and undeniable pairing at centre-back, having featured alongside each other throughout the height of Southgate’s tenure. Maguire has been in the limelight throughout the beginning of this season and that’s without even playing. Certain moments over the past 12-18 months have caused his reputation to take a damaging toll, but some criticism is unfair with the United centre-back still one of the best passers in the business, and a constant threat from attacking set-pieces. John Stones has also retained his place despite fewer minutes at City across the previous two campaigns, with Eric Dier and Ben White adding necessary competition to the side.

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The remainder of the back four has been in little doubt since the successive injuries to Reece James and Kyle Walker, especially given Gareth Southgate’s history surrounding Trent Alexander-Arnold. Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw have done a solid job progressing the ball up the wings, even against the odds of a well-organized block.

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Next up: Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham. If Three Lions’ fans are unhappy with performances at the moment, these two certainly aren’t to blame. Bellingham looks like the most mature 19-year-old to ever grace the game, a truly generational talent. Rice has been as solid as ever, screening the back four, recovering loose balls and carrying the ball out of trouble for England. He’s ninth in the Premier League for combined tackles and interceptions (4.00 per 90), on a 75% tackling win rate. Given the young age of both players, a long-term partnership could be in store.

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Jordan Henderson can provide that Kalvin Phillips-esque solidity and stability to the midfield in his fantastic organization of the entire team and knowhow of where to be on the pitch for his own sake. Mason Mount meanwhile has not necessarily enjoyed the most positive of tournament starts, often getting lost behind the opposition’s midfield lines in matchdays one and two.

The front three has been more versatile and up for debate, especially now given the positive performances of Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden in place of Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka against Wales. Harry Kane is perhaps the only undeniable starter in the front line as a leader and captain of the team, and a creative element in supporting the electricity of the others. With a true number ’10’ in the team, Kane’s role is more restricted to staying up top than in previous tournaments. However, he remains an excellent playmaker as he drifts to the wide areas, and others run in behind.

BUILD UP

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England build out from the back in a slow, methodical way. This can often result in what many would describe as dull, unexciting football, as the ball slowly moves its way from one centre-back to the other. Rice is afforded less room to be adventurous and progressive than at West Ham, and even Bellingham’s role is less about driving and more about circulating out from the back. The ironic part is that while everyone else seems to act with patience, Jordan Pickford has no time for patience, and actively wants to thrust the ball forward at any opportunity. Thankfully his “distribution” is quite good in picking out his teammates, but it’s still a notable contrast to his teammates.

The shape of the build-up can be described as a 2+3, with the entire team forming a 2-3-2-3. Mason Mount drops to the left-half-spaces to create that midfield triangle between himself, Rice and Bellingham. But the ability of the centre-backs to adequately find the right moments into their danger men in midfield have been few and far between. Their best routes are usually instead bouncing the ball from central midfield to the full-back on a one-touch, thus quickly breaking pressure and advancing down the half-spaces to wide areas.

While steady progression has been positive in glimpses and moments from the likes of Trippier and Shaw, the fullbacks usually only advance into higher, more productive positions once possession has been sustained for some time (what we call the circulation stage). Unfortunately, England’s circulation takes place for far too long, and ends up manifesting more as retention rather than progression.

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If Southgate’s men can draw inspiration from any team at the tournament, Luis Enrique’s Spain are an optimal choice. They consistently move the ball on a one-touch through the thirds, allowing the ball to do the work. With the likes of Pedri and Gavi looking for moments to burst through the centre, and the centre-backs quickly advancing the ball, they create as many angles for the ball-carrier as possible through quick and incisive moment. England have strong midfielders, but the movement toward the ball is too slow across the board, and not backed up with the right amount of urgency from the carriers in question.

High-risk, line breaking passes looked promising against Iran – with Bellingham and Maguire key instigators. But since that opening day triumph, we’ve seen nothing of the sort. The 150 minutes they went without a goal against the U.S. and Wales certainly did not come without steady spells of possession, and the sort of control that England would crave. Encouragingly, the addition of Henderson brought out that positive movement in deep from the playmaking ‘9’ himself in Harry Kane. It even allowed Bellingham to exist higher up the pitch and get on the ball in the more dangerous areas that he loves to roam, rather than needing to be so box-to-box in all regards. So while most England fans and Gareth Southgate himself would not dare exclude Mason Mount over the Liverpool captain, it may be worth a consideration heading into the match against Senegal.

Attacking Principles

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Southgate’s offensive line is brimming with options from the bench and that’s without the injured James Maddison and unselected Ivan Toney and Tammy Abraham. Manchester City stars Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are struggling to even get gametime under Southgate, with the former not playing a single minute in England’s excruciating 0-0 draw against USA.


Instead, the slick movement of Raheem Sterling has been used. It still seems weird to be calling him a veteran for the nation, but this is now his fifth major tournament in an England shirt. Unfortunately for the Three Lions, Sterling hasn’t been firing on all cylinders in quite the same heights he managed the summer before at the Euros.


Nevertheless, England’s attack relies on width provided by the wing-backs as it would be unrecognizable for them not to play inside forwards on the left and right wing. 57% of their final third receptions arrive in the wide channels, and they use Trippier and Shaw to play crosses into the box. As crosses often do, many often result in the keeper’s hands, or the noggin of a defender instead. Cut-back crosses will be effective in allowing Sterling and Bellingham to thrive if England can reach the by-line, but the opportunities have been minimal due to a lack of clear and consistent attacking rotations in the final third, and the overall lack of advancement into the final third.


England don’t tend to stick to such a rigid attacking structure, instead using high individual quality to create big moments. For example, using Rashford’s explosiveness on the counter-attack, or Harry Kane’s technical quality in the final third. Some might call this a lack of identity, and this is something that Southgate will need to be mindful of as he builds chemistry back into his team for the Round of 16.


In their final group game vs Wales, the forward line experienced major adjustments and actually, it improved the attack in a number of ways. Mount was replaced by Jordan Henderson, who helped increase the amount of positional rotations, particularly in the triangles down the right with Foden and Trippier. Equally, his leadership qualities stood out – constantly barking orders down the throats of teammates. Foden also came in for Saka, whilst Rashford’s verticality came in handy, grabbing a brace. Moving forward, England’s wide areas will likely continue to be imperative to bagging goals, with Harry Kane turning the provider at 3 assists.

Even then, well-drilled defenses have the potential to disrupt the England attack simply due to the slow nature of their build-up, and the ability of the opposition to accumulate plenty of time to get themselves organized. They sit eighth in final third touches per 90 at the tournament, but second for average possession (65%). Senegal will almost certainly be studying the United States’ approach to playing England, as the States completely frustrated England’s lackadaisical nature out from the back.

Defensive Principles

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Currently, there are mixed reviews on England’s defensive setup at this World Cup because of the blasé nature of their press. However the idea behind the inactive front of Southgate’s team is that by playing defensively solid football, they are limiting the impact of goals at their own end of the pitch and then relying on individual quality at the other. Pressing isn’t for everyone, and not pressing tends to conserve energy for the likes of Harry Kane – who need that energy later.


Their defensive shape mainly plays as a 4-2-3-1, but can also display a 4-4-2 with Mason Mount joining skipper Kane at the front of the pack. Interestingly, versus Wales, it became a 4-1-4-1, with Henderson and Bellingham leading a ball-oriented press from midfield. Ever mature-for-his-age Bellingham claimed having Henderson next to him improved the pressing. “It was important for us to be on the front foot and Hendo brings that intensity every time he plays, when he gives you that confidence to go and press, I can push on.” It was clear in the second half England were playing with more energy, pressing higher and forcing the ball back to Danny Ward more frequently.


However, unexcitingly, like many other nations at this year’s tournament, England play a zonal mid-block, shifting the team from side to side as the opposition try to work their way around the compact central spaces. Jude Bellingham’s aggressive mentality, always looking to press the opposition, makes this system seem even more negative because it’s clear they have the players to attempt a press, just not the system to do so. Occasionally, players like Bellingham and Saka have attempted to counter-press the opposition high and wide, but again, it doesn’t envisage a clear tactical instruction throughout the squad. Unsurprisingly, Bellingham has the most tackles in the squad thus far (2.5 per 90).

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At times you can see the Dortmund star attempting to lead the press from the front or even just by squeezing the opposition wide. Using the sidelines as an extra defender, Bellingham is quick to move across and suffocate the dribbler before he enters the final third. However this could be far more effective with the added support of Kane and another midfielder, even if the opposite winger was to maintain width for a switch of play.

Nevertheless, even despite what appears to be a lack of clear instruction around collectively pressing from the front, they’ve won the ball back in the final third an impressive 6.3 times per 90. Successive clean sheets will also give Southgate confidence, knowing that he can likely have what it takes to keep an energetic Senegal side out in the Round of 16.

Conclusion

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Southgate has the players to play more attractively in and out of possession, but he’s (perhaps wisely) opted for a solid defensive approach. This can frustrate the nation’s fans but has also proved very successful in the past with a semi-final appearance at the World Cup in 2018 and only losing to Italy on penalties in the final of Euro 2020 last year. They have the players to create big moments, and now they look towards Senegal as the next hurdle in their attempt to secure a first major tournament win in 56 years.


So there it is! Our tactical analysis of England after the first three World Cup matches. Make sure to give a clap for Charlie Ellis for this fantastic article on the site, and to share your thoughts on social media @mastermindsit. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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