It was the word of the week for Gareth Southgate.
“The boys are consistently producing on memorable nights — exciting performances,” he said before the 3-1 win over Italy. And when asked what had changed since England lost the Euro 2020 final to the same opponents, he replied: “Experience of winning big matches, consistent performances.”
Consistent performances often result from consistent tactics and formations. In the Euros final, Southgate switched from his 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3. Against better opponents, like Germany in the round of 16, England were pragmatic and defence-first — they had just 35 per cent possession in the final.
But, just as in Naples in March when England won 2-1, Southgate’s side were front-footed on Tuesday night, pressing high and slightly edging first-half possession. Once more Southgate played a 4-2-3-1, and while the back four and front three changed, critically, the midfield three remained: Jude Bellingham, wearing No 10 and playing like one, in advance of a Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips double pivot. Southgate picked the same midfield in the same shape in the 3-1 away win to Scotland, too.
Compared to the point-down midfield triangle he had used at the World Cup — with Rice as a single pivot and Bellingham and another No 8 — the point-up midfield triangle can be more attacking, even if it seems more defensive.
First, out of possession, it offers more protection to the back line. Afterwards, Southgate spoke of England having “more legs in midfield, more physicality.”
With the ball, it better facilitates rotations, as one of the pivots can pull wide to push a full-back on without leaving England exposed centrally. Rice consistently moved out to the left wing, like he has done for Arsenal, allowing left-back Kieran Trippier to advance, mitigating the build-up flaws (and possible pressing traps) of having a right-footer in that position. A variation involved Rice dropping between the centre-backs, who split wider and could dribble from the half-spaces.
The first rotation created England’s first attack of the game.
Italy shifted their in-possession 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 defensive shape to man-mark England’s double pivot. Central midfielder Davide Frattesi stepped up alongside No 9 Gianluca Scammacca.
With Rice’s rotation, right winger Domenico Berardi had to make a decision. He could press Rice, and possibly leave (or worse, create) passing lanes into midfield and out wide, reliant on his teammates to adjust and cover, or sit off and let Rice dictate play.
On this occasion, he presses, but too late. There is enough time for Marcus Rashford to drop deep, pulling right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo with him. England get out with a Rice-Rashford one-two.
From here, England go from left to right in a remarkably similar pattern to their goal against Italy in the Euros final, at an almost identical time in the match and at the same end of the pitch. Harry Kane hits a switch to the onrunning Kyle Walker, who consistently picked up advanced positions that required Italy left winger Stephan El-Shaarawy to drop deep — at times they defended, particularly in a low block, with a back five.
Here, England are four-v-four and should make more out of Walker’s cross, which Di Lorenzo heads clear at the far post.
The other rotation, Rice between the centre-backs, happened less and was less effective, partially due to Harry Maguire’s reluctance to drive forward with the ball.
Here, Maguire stands on the ball for six seconds, declining passes into Bellingham or Phillips. He ends up passing to Trippier, who is pressed by Berardi and, as a right-footer, only really has the option of hitting a hopeful first-time pass into midfield.
“What was really pleasing was that when we went behind we stayed calm,” Southgate said afterwards. “We used the ball really calmly from the back. There’s been moments in the bigger games where we’ve lost possession too easily.”
England completely lost midfield battles and failed to see out 1-0 leads against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final and the Euros final against Italy. They were better against France in the 2022 World Cup, losing the game in both boxes rather than between them.
Rene Maric analyses where Euro 2020 final was won and lost: Mancini’s tweaks and England’s failures in possession
Beyond this midfield structure better suiting Southgate’s desire for control and defensive possession, it clearly gets the best out of Bellingham, which in turn helps get the best out of Kane. Southgate described Bellingham as a “catalyst”, that “the power in his play gives us something in tight situations and he can wriggle out of things.”
If Kane’s tendency to drop deep as a No 9 makes him and nine-and-a-half, the same is applicable to Bellingham as a No 10 who can offer so much beyond the ball. Kane’s physicality and ability to pin a centre-back and receive passes, complements the 20-year-old’s tenacious forward running, shown in the build-up for England’s penalty.
Rice splits Italy’s midfield three, into Bellingham’s feet, and he flicks the ball onto Kane before sprinting past him.
Kane plays him through, and before he can shoot, Di Lorenzo fouls Bellingham with a last-ditch tackle.
Bellingham’s start to life at Real Madrid, scoring 10 in as many appearances, including five match-winning goals (and two beyond the 90th minute) is the best the league has ever seen.
Besides Kane, there are only three other England players to score at least 10 under Southgate: Raheem Sterling (18), Rashford (16) and Bukayo Saka (11) — add Bellingham as a goal threat and they become a lot harder to stop. That was clear against Italy when Kane would drop deep, often taking centre-back Francesco Acerbi with him, and England still had the option of Bellingham in an advanced position, who could receive passes and combine with the wingers.
Considering Kane’s partnership with Son Heung-min at Tottenham Hotspur, the best goalscorer-assister combination in Premier League history, having a player that can supply Kane with through balls (like Bellingham did in Scotland), or run onto his, adds another dimension to England’s attack.
England have scored 197 goals in Southgate’s 89 games. Kane has scored 56, 28 per cent, and if you factor in assists (Kane’s 21 are also the most) then he has been directly involved in 39 per cent of England’s goals under Southgate.
32 – Harry Kane has been directly involved in 32 goals in his last 30 appearances for England (26 goals and six assists), including either scoring or assisting in each of his last 10 games for the Three Lions. Guarantee. pic.twitter.com/mFtGquvGKM
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 17, 2023
“There is a risk we take his goals for granted,” Southgate said afterwards, pointing out that his “all-round play and the way he dealt with the centre-backs, his vision and passing… is easy to underestimate because we have had him a long time.”
Realistically, the question should not be if Southgate should make this plan A for next summer’s Euros, but rather who partners Rice in the pivot.
Phillips has been first-choice, but his injury record is poor and games record even worse. He has not yet played 800 minutes since joining Manchester City in summer 2022. Only five of his 26 appearances, in all competitions, have been starts.
Southgate said that England “can’t carry players” in big games, and Phillips was the weakest of the midfield three on Tuesday. Inside a minute he clattered Di Lorenzo with a high foot, was yellow carded inside 10 minutes for a clumsy tactical foul and was fortunate to not be sent off in the second half.
Southgate subbed Phillips for Jordan Henderson, who at 33 and playing for Al-Ettifaq in Saudi Arabia, is seen by many as fortunate to even make the squad. There is no standout replacement, but Southgate did highlight the need for different types of players for “different nights” and opposition, and it may be a case of England tweaking accordingly.
Conor Gallagher would offer a lot against better and ball-dominant opponents. He is a tireless and defensively excellent midfielder, and while his future at Chelsea might lie in more of a No 8 role, he has played in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 under Mauricio Pochettino this season.
Against inferior or more passive opponents, there is no reason to look past Trent Alexander-Arnold. His passing range and ability to split a midfield, particularly with long passes, is unmatched. With a back four plus Rice, there is enough defensive cover for his positional problems too.
The only real loser in this situation is James Maddison. Last November, Southgate said that he had not called up Maddison, at least in part, because there were “moments we were playing 4-3-3 with no No 10, so his profile didn’t quite fit.”
In the grim scenario that Bellingham is unavailable, Maddison would replace him perfectly.
Keep this system, with Bellingham playing off Kane, and England could have more memorable nights in Germany next summer.
(Top photo: Getty Images)