We may have got a glimpse of Gareth Southgate’s tactics for the knockout stages in the win over Wales on Tuesday. The England head coach changed the central midfield three, removing the attacking role behind Harry Kane to bring in the experienced Jordan Henderson in a deeper position.
England will have seen what other teams are doing and how they operate, leaving Southgate to create a plan that could take England through to the final. Brazil, for example, go through the middle of teams and an extra man in central midfield will help counteract that. It worked against Wales, who managed a solitary shot.
England’s first – but hopefully not last – opponents in the knockout stages are Senegal, who have serious midfield concerns. Cheikhou Kouyaté was injured in the first match and Idrissa Gueye picked up a second booking against Ecuador, meaning he will be suspended. Having to reshuffle for a vital game will be a tough ask for them.
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Midfield is an area where England are strong. Jude Bellingham has arguably been their best player across the opening three games and Declan Rice has worked diligently. Having a third deeper central player is not necessarily a defensive move because Bellingham has proved he is a threat going forward and Rice and Henderson allow him greater freedom to attack in the space previously occupied by Mason Mount. Adding Henderson in place of a more attacking midfielder brings a level of robustness that should allow England to cope with technical and physical opponents.
Kyle Walker can help protect the areas in front of the defence from right-back – it is something he does a lot at Manchester City – but he has played only an hour in the tournament, so the balance of three deeper central midfielders makes sense. Kalvin Phillips could drop into the central three and his time against Wales will be useful.
Another change was the use of Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford from the start. In the first half they played as inverted wingers – Foden on the right and Rashford the left. The Manchester United forward was one of England’s more impressive players but Foden struggled to get into the game. Wales did well to double up on the Manchester City midfielder and when he cut inside it was into a congested area.
Southgate swapped the two over for the second half, making an immediate impact thanks to Foden’s clever dribbling to earn a free-kick from which Rashford scored. They looked more comfortable on their stronger sides. Rashford became more direct and Foden seemed liberated. The greater freedom helped him make a trademark, Pep Guardiola-inspired run to the back post to tap home the second.
The third goal came from Rashford, a sign of his returning confidence, when he cut inside and showed smart feet before finishing. No one should doubt his ability. When young players come on to the scene they are quite raw and just go for it, but the next stage, when they are about 21 and people imagine they have 50 caps and are more experienced than they are, is really hard. They have to get through that. Rashford has come out the other side and is showing what he is capable of. It is a case of believing in yourself and he has the self-confidence required at the top, allowing United and England to reap the rewards this season.
It will be difficult for Southgate to leave out Foden or Rashford. The only question is whether Foden can get in the game enough to affect it. I liked what he brought, trying to take people on, being brave and attempting to open up the opposition. The performance should help him to stay in the team.
Before the tournament the only concern I had about England was the defence. In three games they have conceded twice, which is largely down to how well they have controlled the matches. England have kept the ball well and that makes a team more defensively sound because the opposition cannot threaten without possession.
England have not lost in their 20 matches against African opposition, which is an impressive record. There have already been shocks in the tournament and the important thing is for England to maintain their focus. Kalidou Koulibaly scored Senegal’s winner after a free-kick was crossed into the box against Ecuador, a sign of how dangerous he is.
England will be favourites but they should not have one eye on the quarter-final because they will be punished. I have played in tournaments where we were tipped to win, lost concentration, conceded two goals from set pieces and were on the next plane home.
Senegal have lost some key players: not only Gueye and Kouyaté but also Sadio Mané before the World Cup began. Selfishly, as an England fan, this is good news because they will be very hard to replace. Senegal do, though, have plenty of quality. We have seen at Watford how dangerous Ismaïla Sarr is and he proved that by winning and scoring a penalty against Ecuador.
England have the tools to beat Senegal but now it is a case of getting the job done and nothing comes easy at a World Cup.