In what was England’s last training session before the World Cup camp actually begins, Gareth Southgate spent most of the time trying to solve the biggest issues with his three-man backline formation. That is not just the lack of goals, but the lack of chances and creativity.
The coaching staff worked on drills where one of the two central midfielders moved much higher up in the build-up, to try and offer “that extra man”.
Given the paucity of sessions before the squad actually meet up for Qatar, that proves the manager won’t be moving off three at the back. There was nevertheless a hint of a giveaway as Raheem Sterling described it to the media as “this five at the back”.
That reflects how many see it is a primarily defensive system, especially since the entire point is to offer England security in the most testing games. While Southgate is prepared to go to four against teams outside the top tier, that isn’t the case with matches like this, as his side face Germany for a last send-off before the World Cup.
It is further layered by the pressure to produce a performance amid the worst spell of the manager’s six years in charge, which is why he is persisting with a formation that has become so divisive.
So much of it stems from exactly the same issue Southgate had when he took over back in 2016, as great a consistency of his tenure as anything else. England still lack that passing midfielder. Southgate prompted a re-examination of this himself when specifically naming Joshua Kimmich as Germany’s most valuable player. It essentially means that, for all England’s progress over the past half-decade, the squad’s complexion distils that classic dilemma of the international manager: trying to impose a tactical idea, while having to compromise around components you just don’t have. The three-man backline is a very literal workaround.
“In terms of the profile of players, we cannot buy somebody, we cannot generate somebody,” Southgate said. “We have got to make the most of the players that we have. That’s what we try to do - we try to find different ways of building from the back to allow us that lack of a playmaking pivot, if you like. At the moment, we don’t have that sort of player in this country. I don’t think we develop that sort of players well through youth football and through academies. Other countries probably have a little bit more focus on that.”
It means, in the absence of Kalvin Phillips, Southgate is likely to stick with a duo of Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice on Monday. As much as anything, it will be to give them more minutes together to develop an understanding.
“So we have players with other excellent attributes and we try to get the most out of that, and that’s what we did with Declan and Kalvin in particular in the summer. Jude is a different sort of profile for that. He is somebody who can gallop forward and take the game to the opponent in a different way. Yes, you’ve got to get the best out of the attributes of the players you have got.”
It was put to Southgate that there could be more experimentation with some of England’s more technical players in the middle. This has been a solution for other international managers in the past, where they’ve been inspired to try a certain player in a different role. The most famous perhaps remains Vicente Del Bosque’s use of Cesc Fabregas when David Villa was injured in Euro 2012. Southgate hinted it wasn’t so possible a decade on, with how intensive club tactics now are.
“Well, I’ve never seen their clubs do it,” Southgate responded, before referencing the previous experimentation with Trent Alexander-Arnold. “If you are not doing it every day… We have talked about Trent’s passing, that’s why we gave him a go in midfield. That got completely lambasted so I understand that if you are not doing that every day for your club in certain positions, it is very difficult to transfer that onto an international stage.”
It could be argued that some of that is the case with Southgate’s attackers. Bukayo Saka hasn’t played as a wing-back for Arsenal in two seasons, while all of Sterling, Harry Kane and Phil Foden are asked to perform different duties for England than their clubs.
“There are, of course, benefits for the forwards and the difficulty is that you have always got your back to goal,” Sterling explained. “And I’m normally wide, which is a position I’m more than comfortable playing. The more we play it, the better it will be.”
This is what Southgate has been stressing on the inside, as criticism grows on the outside. For all the focus on results, and a solitary goal in five games, the manager believes it is now just about the little nuances and understandings.
“Teams who play four at the back nominally build with three at the back most of the time now anyway. They push a full-back high, they might push another midfield player high. You write a formation down but when you defend or attack you are hardly ever in that shape. It is always evolving, and individual positioning in the field is constantly in flow and in flux.”
That’s undeniably true, but a consistent issue is that Southgate’s formations - especially the three-man backline - tends to look so fixed. At its worst, it is as if players are on tramlines. At its best, there can be fluency and quick exchanges. That however requires psychological momentum, mindset and confidence are so important. It is why the constant message to the players has been to stay calm amid all this.
Sterling certainly believes some of this is just circumstantial.
“In club football, I’ve had moments when I haven’t scored for a while and you just need a good performance from the team and that can change,” the Chelsea forward explained.
“Personally for myself, going away for a week to finish a PL season, then to come back, it was difficult. I think it’s not the right time for us internally.. I don’t think any of the boys are panicking.
“It’s not a time to panic and say ‘we haven’t scored, we haven’t scored. I think a good performance and one of our big players to step up and change that narrative, that is more than likely what will happen.”
They could very much do with it happening on Monday, against one of the best sides in the world, in this last match before the World Cup.