Three at the back: England’s back to the future

Gareth Southgate’s 3-5-2 has served England well in the past, now may be time to call it a comeback. 

With no Ben Chilwell in the squad, a natural left-back is sorely lacking for England. Their 4-3-3 system used against Iceland was woefully ineffective. The lack of a left-back forced Kieran Trippier to come inside and almost completely negated his ability to affect the game in attack. This lack of width playing right into the hands of Iceland’s low block.

They simply allowed England to play in front of them with the forwards isolated and with limited supply. A switch to three at the back would allow them to play their best players in positions that suit them. Joe Gomez, Harry Maguire and Tyrone Mings provide a balanced if unspectacular back three. All comfortable on the ball and able to effectively play out from the back.

Playing with a back three also allows for the more effective use of Trent Alexander-Arnold. While the young Scouser plays in a back four at Liverpool, he operates more like a wing-back. However, Liverpool’s system is strictly tailored to cover for his attacking instincts. The England midfield on the other hand, with the presence of the likes of Phil Foden is not as functional.

With a three at the back system there’s less pressure on him defensively and he would be able to provide the full extent of his attacking talents. In the absence of Ben Chilwell, a move to a three at the back would also accommodate Ainsley-Maitland Niles. So effective in a similar system under Mikel Arteta, his pace and work-rate would fit the system beautifully.

The midfield area allows for greater versatility in a three at the back. Against weaker opposition, a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 can be used. This means attackers like Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling have greater licence to work in central positions with less pressure to provide width. A 3-4-1-2 also allows England to play with a number 10, a position where they have at least four top candidates, including Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden.

Against tougher opposition however, England’s midfield can become far more stubborn. With the likes of Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier and Declan Rice, there are many excellent defensive players in the England midfield. Playing a 3-5-2 with two of them and one more creative option would allow England to attack in the way that suits them best. On the counter.

While this is no simple switch it does allow England to play their best players in their best positions. Simple as that sounds, for too long the Three Lions have put square pegs in round holes. And for too long England’s players and fans have suffered for it.

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