Gareth Southgate ponders formation switch after Czech Republic defeat | Football
Gareth Southgate has said he would consider a switch back to a three-man defence as he picked over the tactical flaws that led to Friday’s 2-1 defeat against Czech Republic in Prague. The England manager, whose team face Bulgaria in Sofia on Monday in the second game of the Euro 2020 qualification double-header, felt the tremors from the Czech reverse more keenly because of how smoothly his team had progressed in the campaign up to that point.
England’s 100% record was taken apart and so was Southgate’s faith in the 4-2-3-1 system with which he began the game. With his team over-run in midfield and unable to take a grip in creative terms, he reverted to a more familiar 4-3-3 for the second half, which served to bring more cohesion. That said, the overall performance fell some way short of the expected levels and Southgate indicated that a move to a back three was an option, although most likely not for the Bulgaria game.
Southgate does not feel he has the personnel in his squad to play that way and it is why he did not do so against the Czechs. John Stones is missing because of injury while Joe Gomez has been out of the Liverpool team and both Tyrone Mings and Fiyako Tomori lack international experience. Kyle Walker is out of favour.
“We are in a difficult situation in terms of the players that have played international football with us in that area of the pitch and who are playing regularly with their clubs,” Southgate said. “So that’s part of the reason we didn’t do that [play a back three] against the Czechs. It’s certainly something we’ve considered and I don’t think we can dismiss. I’m not sure, ahead of Monday, if that’s the right thing to do but we’re very aware and assessing those things.”
Southgate switched to a back three against Lithuania in October 2017, believing that the system offered greater stability for the World Cup finals in Russia, and it provided the platform for the run to the semi-finals. Since then, he has overseen a move to 4-3-3 to try to make the team more proactive but the quest for the ideal balance continues.
Southgate started with Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice in front of the back four in Prague and the hope was that the formation would make England more solid without the ball and less vulnerable to the counterattack. But with Mason Mount pressed close to Harry Kane, the Czechs enjoyed numbers and space in midfield.
What did not help Southgate was the team’s poor distribution, with Henderson particularly culpable. Harry Winks is in his midfield thoughts for Bulgaria.
“We ended up in a situation where we were no more secure and we didn’t use the ball as well – hence the switch back at half-time,” Southgate said.
“I’m glad we’ve had a look at it [4-2-3-1]. Is that experiment over? Well, it’s not something we should dismiss but we’d have to look at the personnel in the roles as to whether that would work. Equally, there are other things we need to assess rather than just when we’re a 4-2-3-1, whether that can work moving forward.”
Southgate does not feel that going back to his World Cup system would represent a retrospective step; rather it would give him another option and he said there remained the time to switch before the Euro finals.
“I think players take in tactical concepts very quickly, especially top players,” he said. “We have to keep reflecting on what’s working, what’s possible and learn from every experience we have. We’ll learn a lot from Prague. We’ve had straightforward qualifying games that haven’t challenged us but this was a proper test and we didn’t come through, so it would be naive not to take the lessons from what we’ve seen.”
As ever after an England defeat, the sense of soul-searching was pronounced. The “Reality Czech” headlines were appropriate. Perhaps the straightforward nature of England’s first four qualifying wins had made for overconfidence and it is a challenge to stop the fans, in particular, from imagining themselves in a semi-final at Wembley. To many of them, it has been written. But while the defence remains such a glaring problem and young players throughout the set-up bed in, Southgate can safely preach realism.
“It’s not for me to tell the public not to dream,” Southgate said. “Internally, we have to be different and realistic. We’re not under any illusions. To be a really top team, with players with experience of winning the biggest matches – we’re still some way from that. We found a way to progress through the World Cup with what was a relatively inexperienced team and that’s what we’re always trying to do.
“We’re still young and relatively inexperienced, and some of the performances in qualifying have hidden that a little bit. The test is completely different to the one we had in the Nations League semi-final against Holland and that we’ll face against the best teams next summer.”