Before we return to club soccer, I wanted to make a few notes on how England’s national team are beginning to shift in response to the change Mauricio Pochettino has brought to Tottenham, which now supplies as many as five of the English best XI when all the players are fit.
Though we have only seen it twice this season, Spurs have at times played a 3-3-3-1 shape that maximizes the number of attacking players while placing a considerable load on the central midfielders, wide center halves, and the wingbacks.
In this system, the central midfielder is flanked by the two wingbacks. The wingbacks must need to defend and attack on the perimeter but are also expected to tuck inside at times as inverted fullbacks, adding bodies in midfield to support the lone midfielder.
The wide center backs, meanwhile, have important defensive responsibilities but also need slide forward to support the midfield and to make it easier for the wingbacks to push forward.
For Spurs, this system worked well because Victor Wanyama covers a ton of ground in midfield, Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen excel in the versatile wide defender roles, and Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are amongst the finest fullbacks in England.
Eric Dier’s Versatility
With the Three Lions, many of these elements are still in place, though the shape was theoretically a 4-2-3-1. To be sure, Wanyama is not in midfield. Against Lithuania Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was operating in the center of the park. That won’t work against better opposition, but against a team like Lithuania at Wembley they can get away with it.
Meanwhile, the other key players are still there: Eric Dier is operating in something of a free utility role as a defender, able to slide into midfield alongside Chamberlain as needed but also with freedom to take up a wide center back role on either side of a back three:
(Dier is the number four at the bottom of the image.)
Moments later on the right side of a back three:
In this image, Dier is in the top of the screen near midfield.
What Dier allows this English team to potentially do is fascinating. They can set up, as they did in this game, in a theoretical 4-2-3-1 like so:
Walker, Keane, Stones, Bertrand
Sterling, Dele, Lallana
However, because of the versatility of many of the players in this set up, the system can morph as needed. Dier can drop into a back three, the fullbacks can tuck up alongside Chamberlain while also taking opportunity to overlap the front three as required. The front three of Sterling, Dele, and Lallana can all drift across the attacking third.
On top of all this, Dier can also theoretically sit at the base of midfield as a number six while Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana or Dele act as runners just ahead of him a 4-1-4-1, a la Pep City.
Point being, Dier affords England a lot of options because he can play as a midfielder, a fullback, part of a back three, or one of two center backs in a back four.
Walker and Bertrand’s Roles
Meanwhile, Kyle Walker and Ryan Bertrand had roles similar to what we saw in Tottenham’s 3-3-3-1. At times they overlap like traditional wingbacks supporting the wide attackers. At other times, they tuck in a bit more narrowly and support the midfield.
In one passage of play, Walker was sitting very close narrow and close to midfield when an errant pass came his way, giving him a chance to counter down the middle of the field:
Bertrand at times also played more narrowly.
The Role of Elite Young Tacticians on the English National Team
One of the intriguing things about this generation of English footballers is how many of them play for Mauricio Pochettino or Jurgen Klopp, two managers with an aggressive, frantic style that values flexibility, work-rate, and a kind of organized chaos that creates the circumstances in which their teams can create high-quality chances. Here is a list of players who may well feature in the English national team during the next cycle who play for Pochettino or Klopp:
Defenders: Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Nathan Clyne
Midfielders: Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Dele Alli
Strikers: Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge
Though Klopp and Pochettino have different styles, there is some undeniable overlap between them. When you add in Pep Guardiola’s Man City players John Stones and Raheem Sterling, you have nine players who are likely to go to Russia next summer who play in systems that value versatility and seek to disrupt the opposition with aggressive, high pressing.
It will be very interesting to see how Gareth Southgate channels the influence of these players as he builds his squad. If he is wise, he will continue with the general system we saw against Lithuania, though he will need to adapt it based on the competition. Three systems that could work and would use a similar system to what we see above:
Dier, Keane, Stones
Walker, Henderson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana, Rose
Walker, Dier, Stones, Rose
Sterling, Dele, Lallana
Dier, Keane, Stones
Walker, Henderson, Livermore, Rose
Sterling, Dele, Lallana
The key point is going to have a high number of players on the pitch who can run for days, are comfortable on the ball, and have good in-game intelligence which allows them to adjust their position based on the flow of play.
International football is rather notorious for being lower quality because the players come from different clubs and often different domestic leagues. You thus often end up with a sort of lowest common denominator style that is basic and relies on individual skill to produce goals.
The last two World Cup winners are exceptions to this rule. Both Spain and Germany have had national teams comfortable with a fairly well-defined style, though both teams adapted their system as needed. Spain favored possession football, active midfielders, and using fullbacks and narrow advanced attackers to shrink the field and create multiple passing lanes for their short passing style.
Germany, in contrast, looked to win the ball quickly, counter with pace, and repeat until they find a goal.
The English national team has a chance to incorporate aspects of both systems. The versatility of their players allows for a compact shape and disruptive pressing in the style of the Spanish school. The pace of the attackers and the experience of playing for Klopp and Pochettino lends itself to a more German model.
At its worst, these influences could create a sloppy, incoherent system. The compact shape could undermine the defensive quality of the team by affording the opposition frequent chances to counter attack into acres of space.
More optimistically, the running of the fullbacks and midfielders could help counter the vulnerability to counter attacking while the pace and activity of these players could form an excellent complement to the fluid, frantic movement of the front four.
At minimum, we can probably say this: The English national team at Russia 2018 has the potential to be a more coherent, tactically interesting team than anything we have seen from the Three Lions in some time.