England's struggle in ball progression through the thirds has been a primary complaint of the Group Stages. Can England fix the issue going into the last-16 or can they turn it into an advantage?
The Group stage drew to a close last week with England placing among the 16 sides to make it into the knockout rounds. Yet, despite a successful opening to the tournament, England has received some mixed reviews. The majority of the complaints are about the sides low progression, limiting the majority of the sides possession among the deep-lying midfielders, defenders and goalkeeper. Some pundits regard this issue as a representative of Southgate’s conservative leadership and it has since become a key component to the increasing calls for the England manager to ‘unshackle’ the three lions. While Southgate’s influence on this issue cannot be disregarded the blame doesn’t solely lie at his feet but with those that take to the field.
Gareth Southgate has been consistent in both selection and formation. England sits near the top of the charts for the fewest changes in the Euros and so showing how he trusts his preferred starting XI despite blatantly flying in the face of calls for a plethora of undoubted talented players to make an appearance for the three lions.
England’s default formation has been 4-2-3-1 so far this tournament with some relative fluidity to this structure at different moments within the game. This formation is best known for its defensive midfield screen that adds extra defensive cover and cements the formation as a conservative one. Meanwhile, ahead of this defensive pivot sits the three creative births, the most fluid area of the team in terms of personnel; these players are expected to supply the creativity. Players such as Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount are found in these areas of the pitch and a lot of the offensive expectation rests on their shoulders, but it is the sole striker, Harry Kane, that is expected to supply the much-needed goals for the side to progress through the competition.
Playing from the back:
Gareth Southgate set up his side to play out from the back, enabled by John Stones, Harry Maguire and Tyrone Mings, this gives the side an advantage on the ball. However, it is this desire to play out from the back that is the root cause of Englands slow progression issues.
Almost all of England’s centre backs are inherently conservative, picking the safe and easy pass over a pass that may cause a turnover. So they continue to rotate possession in the backline rather than attempting passes that result in the side losing possession. Therefore these players offload these responsibilities onto other players or wait for a pass which will indefinitely find a player further up the pitch.
England's formation does have fluidity as the double pivot breaks to create an asymmetrical 4-3-3 formation. Kalvin Phillips pushes further up the pitch as a conductive piece between defence and attack. Meanwhile, the No.10 accommodates for his wall passes and one-twos by occupying an off-centre space between the lines. Meanwhile, Declan Rice drops in to collect the ball from the centre backs. It is here where the slow progression comes to the fore.
The best players in this facet of Declan Rice's role are constantly on the half-turn allowing the player to turn and progress the ball forward. However, the West Ham United midfielder does not do this instead he receives the ball when facing his goalkeeper and his first touch usually does little to correct this issue. This means that he cannot plan ahead of collecting the ball to pick the next pass forward or carry the ball into a more progressive area on the pitch. At this point, the player can correct the mistake by turning on the ball and then finding an option; but Declan Rice, like the sides centre back options, is a conservative player who will favour a simple pass that maintains possession over potentially losing the ball by turning and trying a forward pass. All of which is made worse by the minor chasm between the defensive department (defenders and defensive midfielder) and the attacking department (attacking midfielders, wingers and strikers), further inhibiting the ability to progress the ball forwards.
How to fix it?
Some England fans will point to the simple answer: Don’t play Declan Rice. By replacing him and putting Kalvin Phillips, a more progressive defensive midfielder, in that role, England could help to alleviate some of these issues and simultaneously opening up a midfield birth for one of the other players that fans have been clamouring to have in the side. However, this seems unlikely as Southgate appears set on 4-2-3-1. This only leaves Jude Bellingham, the 18-year-old wonder kid. However placing the responsibility of starting for your national side on such young shoulders has to be considered a risk despite his talent and Jordan Henderson, who, although showed a marked improvement in the Czech Republic game, still isn’t at his previous levels of performance. Additionally, Henderson has been affected by his goalless England career to date and it may cause him to make irrational decisions in the pursuit of the elusive first goal for his national side. Meanwhile, a claim can be made for Declan Rice to remain on the side too. The West Ham United player is currently the best defensive midfielder in England’s 26-man squad. Declan Rice is so good in this role that Frank Lampard planned to convert the player to a centre back if he had acquired the player for Chelsea.
In truth, the best answer would have been in a happy medium. Whereby England would start a different midfielder and then substitute the more secure presence of Rice on when they are ahead and protecting a lead. However, that is unlikely in this case. Southgate may need to find an answer that includes keeping Rice on the pitch.
Alternatively, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips could swap roles. However, Declan Rice has never played a progressive role at a high level and Phillips has been particularly impressive in the more attacking of the double pivot roles. Additionally, it would be a shame to deconstruct this system to fix a comparatively minor issue.
If Declan Rice continues as he has so far then Southgate may look towards different areas of the pitch for a different out ball. Here the change could see Southgate nominating the fullbacks as the out-ball from deep turnovers. Southgate applied this adjustment against the Czech Republic directing the fullbacks to run into space following a turnover deep in their half. These runs were picked out by progressive passes from Jordan Pickford rather than playing a simple pass to the centre backs. While playing this way also gave England a forward drive which had been lacking at times and helped to connect the two ends of the pitch more seamlessly.
Additionally, Jordan Pickford exhumed class in periods against the Czech Republic. He played some excellent long passes at points in the game where he singled out a free midfielder and dropping it at his feet. By encouraging Jordan Pickford to play passes over the defence, England bypasses the problematic area of the pitch, speeding up transition, and helping the side progress through the thirds faster.
There has been a lot of complaints about this feature of England’s game for the reasons stated in this article but it would be reductive to assign these stretches of play as wholly negative. It could prove to be a vital tool in England’s armoury should they wish to progress deep into the tournament. England will not control every minute of every game. There will be moments in the upcoming games where the opposition will have the momentum and they will look the most likely to score. That is where Declan Rice and Co. come in. Gareth Southgate has set up his 6-man defensive block to be press resistant when in possession giving each player has at least two viable passing options when on the ball. If one passing lane is closed down then another is still available to the player. Allowing England to settle the game down by maintaining possession in this area of the pitch.
Overall, England can utilise the reported issues to their benefit but it needs to be used sparingly. Instead, Southgate should look towards Pickford’s passing prowess and the fullbacks as alternate ways to progress the ball out of the defensive third and into the midfield and attacking areas of the field.