Return of back-three as Southgate tweaks

Gareth Southgate in frame. (PC: UEFA)

Hello back-three, Gareth Southgate’s old friend, it has come to talk with him again… Will he get his waistcoat out also? No. A white t-shirt remains his sartorial choice. 

On a serious note, a back-three had indeed served the England manager well in the past. It was Southgate’s preferred choice at the 2018 World Cup, where his team reached the semi-finals. He stuck to it in the last edition of the Euros as well, until England’s defeat to Italy in the final. 

After the loss, Southgate ditched a back-three and shifted to 4-2-3-1. He is returning to his ‘old friend’ out of desperation. England will go with 3-4-2-1 in their Euros quarter-final against Switzerland on Saturday. Who says the affable manager can’t be flexible! 

Marc Guehi’s suspension has prompted the tweak. The centre-half was doing his job commandably in Harry Maguire’s absence until he picked up a second yellow card of the tournament in England’s Round of 16 fixture against Slovakia. Ezri Konsa is likely to replace him against Switzerland and he, along with Kyle Walker and John Stones, will form a back-three. 

The trickle-down effect will see Trent Alexander-Arnold returning to the starting XI as a wing-back. Kieren Trippier will do the job on the other side. Southgate has informed that Luke Shaw is fit to start. But some minutes off the bench on Saturday is more likely for the Manchester United man. 

Southgate is building up Shaw for the semi-final and the final. He took a risk by selecting him. The manager has been patient and the patience is going to be paid off. 

England are likely to play with two No. 10s against Switzerland, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden. And Harry Kane would be the lone striker. Southgate is copping flak for not playing expansive football. But he is under no obligation to entertain. England have been winning matches and there’s no harm in winning ugly. 

Switzerland are a good team, but they have never got past the last-eight stage at the World Cup or Euros. England are expected to beat them, and in that case, their opponent in the semi-final would be either the Netherlands or Turkey. Do England face an easier route to the final? Southgate was asked about this at the pre-match press conference. He called out the English “entitlement”.

I would say that’s a classic example of the entitlement we have as a nation that creates drama and annoys our opponents,” the manager told reporters. “We are playing a really strong football nation who have played exceptionally well, are well prepared and have enormous pride. Our focus is on how to win this game and play to the best of our ability.”

For so long, England have revelled in overrating. ‘It’s coming home’ is grossly misplaced for a nation that has never played a final outside England. Southgate showed the humility to put things in perspective. 

“We have never been to a final outside England. Only had two finals in our history (and) three semi-finals,” said Southgate. “So lots of nations who we might perceive as English people to be ‘smaller’ have had far better records than us in terms of winning things, in terms of getting to latter stages. It is half of the problem we have.”

At the business end of the tournament, Southgate will bank on the siege mentality to shut out the outside noise. He will hope that his tactical tweak – a back-three and two No. 10s – will make England compact in defence and fluid in attack.