After a positive 2018 World Cup campaign where England reached the semi-final of the competition, there is an ever-high expectation at home for the national side to put together an equally impressive run at the Euros.
Since September last year, England have put together some impressive performances, with wins over Belgium, Poland, as well as against Albania, San Marino, Iceland, Ireland and Wales. In this time period, England have averaged two goals a game, scoring 22 in 11 games, whilst only conceding five with their only losses coming against Belgium and Denmark.
There is a feeling amongst many that the current crop of players is nearing the talent pool that performed so underwhelmingly for Sven Goran-Eriksson and Fabio Capello. Whilst England don’t currently have a team filled with the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard et al. there is a young core to this side, who could well become leading world-class players in the not too distant future. As such there is a positive atmosphere in England in regards to the national team, and incredibly so, just like at the last world cup, lower levels of expectations – which only seemed to benefit them in Russia.
This tactical analysis gives an in-depth insight into the players likely to feature in this summer’s tournament, as well as giving an analysis of Southgate’s overall tactics, and how the manager is likely to use said players.
England’s squad is filled to the brim with young talent. You could theoretically have a host of players in the starting XI yet to enter their peak years. We can see these talents in the image below. Declan Rice, Mason Mount, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden, Reece James, and even Jude Bellingham could all arguably put a case forward for a starting role in Southgate’s preferred side. On the other end of the spectrum, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Jordan Henderson make up the only likely squad options who are perhaps beyond their peak years. Whilst Henderson might struggle for fitness, which would be a devastating blow for England, and Trippier faces steep competition from the aforementioned James and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Walker is playing some of the best football of his career under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. His recent performances against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League semi-final further highlighted that he can still perform at the highest level against some of the best players in the world.
And then we come to players in the peak years of their career, as highlighted by the lighter blue section in the following image. There are certainly some key players in this stage of their career. Likely centre-back partnership Harry Maguire and John Stones fall into this category, as do potential starters Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Kalvin Phillips, and left-back duo Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw. Finally, Captain and talisman Harry Kane also falls into this category too.
Overall, the squad is certainly one of the younger squads of a leading world footballing nation, and even the players in the peak years of their careers, still have plenty of football left in them at this stage of their career. What’s most exciting however, is the young players, who are arguably already leading talents on the world stage. Foden, Rice, and Mount undoubtedly fall into that category from their performances this season, whilst Alexander-Arnold has failed to meet the heights of the previous two seasons, but is nevertheless an elite talent. Finally along with Rashford, Bellingham, and James, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood, and Joe Gomez all represent phenomenal talents with an incredibly high ceiling.
As for formation there is still some debate as to how Southgate will choose to have his side set up, let alone what players he will choose in that system. It’s been widely documented that Southgate likes to play a back three, but he has seemingly begun to move away from this.
Most recently it appears Southgate is preferring a 4-3-3, flipping between playing with a single pivot and a double pivot. Either way, it seems highly likely that midfield three will involve Rice in the double pivot, or by himself as a single, and Mount is also likely to start too. Then with that third position, there is a lot of competition. Kalvin Phillips has performed admirably in that role in recent internationals, whilst if fit, it’s likely Henderson would warrant a start in the midfield given his experience and leadership qualities, on top of his consistently strong performances for England in recent years. However, keep an eye out for Bellingham making a late claim for a start. It might seem like somewhat of a push with the Dortmund midfielder still only 17 years old. However, there’s an argument to be made that Bellingham is England’s most natural number 8, and with Rice best as a 6, and Mount as a 10, Bellingham would arguably give England their most balanced midfield three. Nevertheless, if the tournament were to occur tomorrow, Phillips would probably be given the nod.
Ahead of this midfield three, England will operate with a front three. The one position that will be certain is Harry Kane starting as the centre-forward. Dominic Calvert-Lewin deserves credit for an excellent season with Everton, and the poacher will undoubtedly offer a threat off of the bench. Either side of Kane, Foden would appear to have played himself into the starting XI given his scintillating club form. As for the other position, it’s incredibly difficult to predict. Sterling has been a strong performer for England and is experienced at international level, but a dip in club form may cost him a starting berth, whilst Grealish was widely regarded as the Premier League’s player of the season until his injury which sidelined him for a significant amount of time. Again, this could cost him a start. Rashford on the other hand, has been consistently excellent for Manchester United this season and given his form and lack of injuries, he may well steal a no to start on the right side of that front three.
At the back, Maguire and Stones seem set to start as a centre-back pairing, with Kyle Walker at right-back, despite strong competition from James. As for the left-back position, it’s a toss up between Chilwell and Shaw, but expect the Manchester United man to nick it. The full-back pairings, and even overall formation, may well change based on the opponent. Against an opponent sitting deep in a low block, we could well see Southgate opt for Alexander-Arnold or Trippier, and Chilwell, giving these full-backs the license to pepper the box with crosses, whilst against sides with a more considerable attacking threat, Walker and Shaw’s pace should see them into the team.
Finally, in goal, Jordan Pickford went through a very public questioning of his ability at the beginning of the season, however, he has performed admirably since. His strong distribution skills will also prove helpful for Southgate’s side, and this should see him keep his place at the expense of Nick Pope and Sam Johnstone.
We can see that England are a patient possession side, playing with little directness, and therefore, unsurprisingly, with few forward passes per 100. On top of this, Southgate’s side are far from partial to a long ball. And yet despite this lack of directness, they are an incredibly efficient attacking side. We can see how highly they rank for shots per match, xG per match and touches in the penalty area per match.
In terms of how they will set up in possession, we have to acknowledge that Southgate has flittered between using a back three and back four. However, with Declan Rice growing as a ball-player and not just a defensive midfielder who can break up play, the West Ham midfielder provides Southgate with the flexibility to allow England to play in a 4-3-3 with a single pivot. From this shape, Rice will sit deep as the single pivot during build up play, allowing the full-backs to push on and giving England something very similar in possession with a back four to what they look like with a back three. We can see this from the following pass map, from England’s most recent game against Albania.
We can see this pattern in a game situation from the same game, as we see Rice dropping between the two centre-backs in order to allow the full-backs to push forward, whilst also creating lots of central space.
It’s well known that Kane likes to drop into midfield at any given time, and by leaving two in the midfield during build-up it provides more space for him to do this, and plenty of different passing angles from the back three and full-backs to find the mercurial front man.
Kane’s undeniable ability as a goalscoring threat ensures he is always marked closely by the opposition defence, and he is happy to be man-marked to create opportunities either side of him for his attacking teammates.
In the following image we can see how he remains central as England build play out wide, with a sequence of quick interchanges and rotations involving the left-back, left-winger and central-midfielder. We can see how Foden drops in to exchange passes with Shaw, drawing Albania’s right-back forward. Central-midfielder Kavlin Phillips then rotates into the space created by Foden’s run and England can advance play down the left-flank.
England will use their attacking talent in wide areas to build play, and even when opponents don’t get pulled forward, their attacking wide players have the pace to latch onto through passes even with little space behind. We can see in the following image how Sterling is being man-marked as Shaw receives the ball on the left-flank. He makes a simple dummy move inside just to ensure his defender moves forward on the front foot, before then spinning in behind for the through pass.
With England being a side that dominates possession so heavily, they naturally spend less time out of possession then other teams will. With this style of play, England will most commonly face sides looking to beat them with quick, direct counter-attacks. Cutting these attacks out at the source is vital, and we can see that England’s recoveries in the final third is strong, suggesting they press well, and turn over possession when the opponent has the ball inside their own third. In terms of just general solidity in defence, it’s encouraging for england fans to see their aerial duel win percentage and defensive duel win percentage, rank so highly too.
Look for England’s midfield to get particularly compact in an effort to protect the centre of the pitch. If operating with a single pivot, expect that player to be flanked pretty closely by the two number 8’s positioned in front of him. However, with a double pivot they will remain compact, whilst still providing pressure when the ball is in the half-space. We can also see how the left-winger tucks inside, with the right-winger and centre-forward preventing any easy passage out of pressure for the Belgian side.
This compactness remains in the press as well.England will keep their front three narrow, pressing the ball and showing the opponent wide. They are supported by the central-midfielders pushing forward to ensure that if the front three are beaten, there won’t be any space in the centre of the pitch for them. We can see in the following image how the right-back is ready to push up and press should Albania decide to switch possession to the opposite flank.
Rice’s ability to cover ground well and break up play so effectively gives England’s midfield and front three more freedom to press aggressively. Should they be beaten, as they are in the next image, Rice steps forward from his deep position to intercept the ball.
When we talk about transition we naturally look at what teams do as they transition from defence into attack, and then vice versa from attack into defence.
Starting with transition to attack, England will often look to keep possession and begin their patient build up phase from the back. However, Kane has the abilities to perform as a target man on transition, and England will also look to hit him on transition. With the pace of England’s wide players a constant threat, the likes of Foden, Sterling et al, will look to run past Kane and latch onto the knockdown, before continuing the fast break.
As for transition into defence, England counter-press well, using two basic structures to facilitate this. Firstly, if the ball is lost over a short distance, it will be immediately pressed by the player who gave up possession. We can see an example of this in the next image as right-back Kyle Walker still pushes forward, past the front line, to press his lost possession. This immediate pressure forces the opponent to move the ball quickly, perhaps before their teammates have transitioned into space to receive the ball and play out. As such, this can force a quick turnover, or at least encourage the opponent to merely clear their lines with a long ball forward.
However, England also structure their counter-press during the possession phase. In advanced attacks, Southgate’s side will have plenty of passing options in close proximity to the ball. This allows them to combine in tight spaces and advance possession, but it also allows them to quickly swarm the ball upon losing it, and quickly overload the opposition.
As a group, England have a set of forwards that are taking a respectable amount of shots per 90, on top of taking a good amount of touches in the box per 90. There isn’t particularly any weak player. If we were being critical, you would suggest Danny Ings should be registering slightly higher on both, but he’s still scoring goals at a respectable rate for a low-end Premier League team. Other than this, the graph shows wide players generally leaning towards more touches in the box per 90 than the centre-forwards, and then adversely, the centre-forwards taking more shots than the wide players. That’s to be expected.
There are a few outliers worth mentioning from this first graph though.
In terms of wide-players, Grealish and Sterling are clear outliers for touches in the box per 90, whilst Kane, unsurprisingly, is high on shots per 90. Interestingly with Kane, he ranks relatively low on touches in the box per 90 despite this, giving an insight into how quickly he gets his shots away, but also showing that he will take plenty of shots from outside of the area too.
Moving on to look at actual goal contributions as well as xGoal contributions we can again see how highly Kane ranks, whilst Abrhama has outperformed his xGoal contributions. The Chelsea forward has struggled for regular starts despite this, with plenty of rumours suggesting he may move elsewhere this summer. Nevertheless, this graph shows the forward in a positive light. On the flip side, both Sterling and Ollie Watkins have underperformed slightly on their xGoal contributions.
Regardless, what we can ascertain from this data is that England are blessed with a high-performing group of attacking players, and there will be top-level players not selected. It’s a good headache for Southgate to have at least.
Then we move onto looking at England’s midfielders. Initially we measure them on pass to the final third per 90 and progressive passes per 90. Henderson, and interestingly, Harry Winks, are the outliers when we look at these metrics. Whilst Henderson will be a shoe-in if fit, Winks will be less so. The young Tottenham midfielder has often been criticised by many for playing a lot of lateral passes, so it is encouraging for his continued development to see him rank highly on this graph.
Next we can see their goal contributions against their xGoal contributions. 12 months ago, had you said Jesse Lingard would be an outlier on this graph, you might have raised a few eyebrows. However, the Manchester United man has thrived on loan at West Ham, and has arguably been one of the most potent attacking players in the league since this move. It would be very surprising to see him not make the squad, particularly given Southgate’s previous use of him in the World Cup. Aside from Lingard, Foden ranks well, although is more likely to play out wide than in the 10 role, even though he could perform this role perfectly well, whilst Mount, Bellingham, and James Ward-Prowse are other stand outs.
Whilst Southgate is spoilt for choice when choosing his best options in midfield and attack, England’s defensive options are slightly more shallow. Whilst Chilwell and Shaw are two leading left-backs, and England have an embarrassment of riches at right-back, should there be an injury to one of Maguire or Stones, the centre-back position would look noticeably weaker.
In the first graph we measure the defenders based on pAdj. interceptions and successful defensive actions per 90. Tyrone Mings and Gomez ranks well for interceptions, whilst Chilwell leads successful defensive actions per 90 and ranks well for interceptions. Stones and Walker are at the bottom end of this group, but with City dominating possession so often it’s unsurprising to see them at the bottom of successful defensive actions.
Kane is one of the best centre-forwards in the world and will be looking to perform as well as he did in the World Cup three years ago. His game has moved on from just being an elite goalscorer, and Kane has become an outstanding provider this season, on top of his continued goalscoring exploits. We can see this by seeing how highly he ranks for not only attacking and shooting statistics, but also passing and progressions statistics.
Firstly, in attack, he is in the upper-echelons of the league for non-penalty goals per 90, xG per 90, headed goals per 90, and shots per 90. His lower ranking for xG per shot comes from his willingness to take on shots from longer distances. Also, his lower ranking for successful dribbles and touches in the box per 90 are likely down to his preference for quickly taking on shots. He isn’t a dribbler by trade, and is far better playing quickly, whether that’s taking a shot, or moving the ball on with a pass.
As for his passing statistics, with Kane leading the Premier League in assists, it makes sense to see him rank so highly for xA per 90, as well as key passes per 90. Kane is an outstanding passer of the ball, and as he likes to drop into deeper areas to receive possession, he will often look for that long diagonal switch of play, which he does very effectively. This is why we see his average pass length rank so highly amongst his peers in the league.
It will be interesting to see whether the transfer furore surrounding England’s captain will derail his tournament. He will be out to prove those doubters wrong once again, particularly those who haven’t taken his World Cup golden boot seriously down to his penalties that led him to that honour.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT
Anything less than a semi-final appearance would be seen as a disappointment, but anything more than that would also be seen as an over-achievement. Southgate is honestly still riding the wave of good will that the World Cup performance from three years ago created. There will be more scrutiny this time around, and aside from France, there’s every chance that this is the most loaded squad in the tournament.