England manager Gareth Southgate goes ‘gung-ho’ with usual formation and Bukayo Saka

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Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka v Denmark at Euro 2020 Credit: Alamy
Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka v Denmark at Euro 2020 Credit: Alamy

Surprised by Gareth Southgate choosing a back four and Bukayo Saka? You really shouldn’t be because this is England…


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Gung-ho ho ho
Our first thought on seeing this mammoth headline on MailOnline

‘Bukayo Saka is set to START in England’s World Cup opener against Iran over Phil Foden with Gareth Southgate ready to go gung-ho in Qatar… with Harry Maguire and Jude Bellingham also in line to make the starting XI’

…was that Sami Mokbel had been screwed over by a sub-editor. Surely he did not use the term ‘gung-ho’ about a formation that is basically a pretty standard 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 if you prefer.

After all, gung-ho (‘unthinkingly enthusiastic and eager, especially about taking part in fighting or warfare’) really is ludicrous hyperbole about a formation that England used in three of eight games in 2022. And they were unbeaten in those three games, by the way. So is it ‘gung-ho’ or just really sensible?

But no, it turns out that Mokbel himself has decided that a line-up which is very similar indeed (nine of the same starters) to the England team that beat Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final as ‘gung-ho’…

‘Bukayo Saka is set to pip Phil Foden to a starting role in England’s World Cup opener against Iran on Monday as Gareth Southgate prepares to go gung-ho here in Doha.’

‘Prepares to go gung-ho’! With a back four, one holding midfielder, one box-to-box midfielder, one advanced midfielder with a reputation for off-the-ball effort, two wingers who absolutely track back and an industrious striker.

‘The news will come as a surprise given Foden’s form for Manchester City this season. But Saka is in line to be rewarded for his brilliant form at the Emirates Stadium with a statement start.’

It would only come as a surprise if you have not been paying the slightest bit of attention; Saka has started three of England’s Nations League games this year and has played almost twice as many minutes as Foden (who has started twice). Saka also came off the bench to replace Foden in England’s last game – a 3-3 draw with Germany – and helped change the game.

This is neither a surprise nor gung-ho. Why do we get the feeling that Southgate is being set up for a fall?

‘Southgate is set to utilise a back four against Iran in what is expected to be an attacking line-up. In addition to Saka’s anticipated inclusion, the England boss is also ready to unleash boy wonder Jude Bellingham on the World Cup stage.’

Yes, ‘unleash’ the player who has started the last three England games.

The ten outfield players who have played the most minutes for England in the Nations League in 2022 are as follows: Harry Kane, Harry Maguire, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Reece James, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount and John Stones.

Having found himself without the two players who make a back three/five more viable, nobody should be surprised that the other eight are likely to start v Iran with a back four.

And absolutely nobody should be calling this set-up ‘gung-ho’.


To boldly go where Gareth Southgate has often gone before
But the narrative has been set. Here’s The Sun on that England line-up:

‘GARETH SOUTHGATE is set to ditch five at the back for England’s World Cup opener.

‘The Three Lions boss will revert to a back four against Iran for their curtain raiser in Qatar on Monday.’

Yes, he’s set to ‘ditch’ a formation he has used in the last three England games which have not been won by England. Sounds ‘bold’.

‘SunSport understands Southgate will stick with NINE of the eleven who started against Italy in last year’s Euros final by going with a 4-3-3 formation.’

And if you’re still thinking the formation is the real shock…

‘Southgate deployed England with four defenders instead of his usual trusted five in all but TWO of their seven matches at the Euros.’

So in five of seven matches at Euro 2020, Southgate used a back four and yet the two-game exception is when he used his ‘usual trusted back five’? What the actual f***?

Correction: Gareth Southgate is definitely being set up for a fall.


Cross words
And from John Cross (who really should know better) in the Daily Mirror

‘Gareth Southgate is ready to let the shackles off and go all-out attack in England’s World Cup opener.

‘England boss Southgate is considering switching to a back four against Iran which would be a major departure from his tried and trusted formation with three defenders.’

‘All-out attack’? A ‘major departure’?

In 2021 and 2022, England have played 27 internationals. Southgate has used his ‘tried and trusted formation with three defenders’ nine times. So in exactly one-third of their games.

At Euro 2020, England played two of seven games with a back three.

In World Cup qualification, England played two of ten games with a back three.

And now you want to talk about a ‘major departure’ to the formation Southgate has chosen more than any other over the last two years of football?

‘It is time for Southgate to also unleash Jude Bellingham on the international stage as the Borussia Dortmund teenager is dominating games each week in the Champions League.’

Yes, it is definitely time to ‘unleash’ the 17-cap midfielder on the international stage.


About time
What a really weird opening line in the Daily Telegraph:

‘Bukayo Saka is set to be rewarded for his brilliant Arsenal form with his first-ever World Cup start as England manager Gareth Southgate prepares to send his team out on the attack.’

He was 17 when England last played in a World Cup and had not yet made his Arsenal debut; of course it’s his first-ever World Cup start.

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