As he fine-tunes his tactics and team selection for the game that could define England’scampaign, will be sorely tempted to go back to the future.
The England manager is giving serious consideration to switching to a 3-4-3 formation for the last 16 tie againstat Wembley on Tuesday, the nation against whom he first experimented with a back three in a friendly defeat over four years ago.
Southgate always intended to approach this tournament with three at the back as an option, not least as it brought success in the World Cup three years ago.
Gareth Southgate may consider switching to a back three against Germany in the last-16
The return of Harry Maguire and his partnership with John Stones is a big boost to England
But the unavailability of several key players in the warm-up matches against Austria and Romania last month meant there was little opportunity to perfect it so England began their campaign with an orthodox back four.
Circumstances have changed, however, with the return of Harry Maguire from injury meaning that his successful World Cup partnership with John Stones and Kyle Walker can be restored, while, with Germany using a 3-4-3 formation, the attraction of seeking to match it is obvious.
England have trained in that shape several times over the past few weeks, with Luke Shaw being used as an emergency centre back before Maguire returned to training, and now they have the personnel available to get the most out of the system if required.
If anything the switch would also enable Southgate to get his most trusted lieutenants into the side, while also solving the problem created by the expected unavailability of Mason Mount due to his 10-day self-isolation.
Southgate first tried-out the 3-4-3 system against Germany back in 2017, losing the game 1-0
England were successful with the 3-4-3 system in the 2018 World Cup, reaching the semi-final
Kieran Trippier’s dead-ball expertise has already seen him emerge as a serious contender for a place in the starting line-up in the knockout stages, and Shaw’s delivery should continue to be a source of improved service for Harry Kane.
The Manchester United left back provided the long pass from which Raheem Sterling hit the post against Czech Republic in the second minute of Tuesday’s 1-0 win, and would add balance from the left if he retains his place. Mount’s situation has created an unexpected issue for Southgate who is now without his first-choice No 10.
Jack Grealish took advantage of a rare start in his place against Czech Republic by creating Sterling’s goal, but faded in the second half and it is unclear whether Southgate will trust him in that crucial role against Germany.
Changing systems would remove this dilemma, as Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips could keep their places in midfield, with Grealish competing with Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden for the final attacking spot alongside Kane and Sterling.
While starting with seven primarily defensive-minded players could be seen as a negative move by Southgate there is a compelling argument that the manager would actually be playing to England’s strengths.
It is 482 minutes since England conceded a goal and history suggests they are more likely to emerge victorious from a tight game than the free-flowing contests in Group F that lit up Wednesday night.
Jack Grealish was superb against Czech Republic but he’ll have to battle to keep his place
The Germans, who scraped through their group, will play 3-4-3 and it could be wise to match it
For all the negativity that surrounded Joachim Low’s side in the build-up to the tournament, Germany’s attacking threat remains potent, as they have demonstrated by scoring six goals in their last two matches, and England will have to be at their best defensively to repel them.
Southgate is well aware of this and despite his desire to play open, attractive football he has generally opted for three centre halves against England’s better opponents throughout his five-year reign.
The 50-year-old first made the switch from a back four in his first game as England’s permanent manager in March 2017, a 1-0 defeat by Germany in Dortmund better remembered for a Lukas Podolski wonder goal in his final international appearance.
While Southgate reverted to a back four for a World Cup qualifier against Lithuania four days later, England’s defensive vulnerability in their next match — a 2-2 draw against Scotland at Hampden the following June — convinced him to make the change to a back three permanent.
It did not appear to work initially as England were beaten 3-2 by France three days later, but the system was used almost exclusively the following season and underpinned their run to the World Cup semi-finals.
Southgate has tinkered since, and as he prepares for England’s return to knockout football faces a dilemma of whether to stick or twist.
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