England – Germany: Southgate’s Back Three Pays Off (2-0)

Germany had some good moments to start off with, but eventually England’s man-oriented pressing and stability in possession brought them game control, especially with Germany falling into quite a passive defensive stance. The game drifted somewhat for long periods due to the stability focus of both teams, but England eventually broke through in the second half with clinical play in the final third leading to goals from Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

England made it through the group stages with narrow wins against Croatia and Czech Republic either side of a draw against Scotland. Performances in these games, especially the latter two, showed Gareth Southgate’s primary strategic focus on stability in this tournament, and this was expected to continue against Germany.

This stability focus was perhaps a large part of the reason for a switch to a 3-4-3 shape against Germany, rather than the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 variants used throughout the group stages. England’s use of a back three in the Nations League last year brought mixed results, however Southgate likely saw a back five in the defensive phase as a good counter to the extremely strong switching game shown by Germany in their demolition of Portugal.

England lined up with Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire as the three center-backs, with Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw as wing-backs. In midfield, Southgate again went with his trusted duo of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, while Bukayo Saka started alongside Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling up front after his impressive performance against Czech Republic.

Germany’s group stage was somewhat turbulent, as they began with a defeat against France, despite not playing terribly, before their aforementioned impressive performance against Portugal. Their final group game saw them limp over the line against Hungary with an underwhelming performance.

Germany lined up in their own 3-4-3 shape with Matthias Ginter, Mats Hummels and Antonio Rüdiger in the defense, flanked by Joshua Kimmich and the impactful Robin Gosens. Following his crucial goal against Hungary, Leon Goretzka was preferred over İlkay Gündoğan to partner Toni Kroos in midfield, while the front three consisted of Kai Havertz, Thomas Müller and Timo Werner.

England pressing man-for-man

The first half was generally quite fragmented in places, with neither side able to find a great rhythm in possession. Germany looked slightly better to start off with, but as the half went on, England came into prominence.

Part of England’s gameplan with their 3-4-3 system was the man-oriented pressing that was afforded by having a system which matched up with that of their opponent. The pressing trigger A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. for England was generally a pass out to one of the side backs for Germany, particularly Rüdiger, who was pressed by Saka upon receiving. The pressure on Hummels as the central defender in the back three was actually not always that strong from Kane, and at times allowed the German to advance into the number six space with the ball. 

From the pressing of the side backs though, England tried to create pressing traps out wide, squeezing the play with the nearest wing-back pushing up onto Kimmich or Gosens, and the central midfielders following their opposite numbers as they shifted over to offer a connection.

England took a man-oriented approach to pressing and tried to squeeze the game in wide areas.

Germany had a couple of potentially dangerous situations in the first half where they were able to exploit the spaces left behind Phillips and Rice with dropping movements from Müller and Havertz combined with Werner running in behind and Goretzka running powerfully from midfield. However, the execution was lacking in some crucial moments for Germany, and they were not able to take advantage of these moments. 

Germany more passive

While England were quite keen to put pressure on the German backline, Germany’s own pressing approach was a bit more cautious. Their initial 5-2-3 shape in pressing was more focused on screening passes into central midfield using the cover shadows When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. of the front three, while Goretzka and Kroos secured the deeper midfield zones. 

However, increasingly as the half went on and Germany got pushed slightly deeper, Germany fell more into a 5-3-2 defensive shape, with Havertz dropping into right central midfield, while Goretzka and Kroos were shifted slightly leftward.

Germany were quite passive against the ball, while England looked for breakthroughs in the halfspaces with Saka and Sterling.

The reduced presence in the first line for Germany made it harder for them to break out of deeper defending as England’s back three plus two defensive midfielders found it fairly easy to outnumber Müller and Werner in defensive transitions, and to play around them to retain possession when they had it. 

England were therefore able to prepare attacks quite comfortably in the spaces to the sides of Germany’s strikers and midfielders. The presence of Saka and Sterling in the halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. also became prominent, able to find space to receive between the lines behind Havertz and Kroos. The responsibility here was one Ginter and Rüdiger to step out and neutralise this threat, but the agility of Saka and Sterling sometimes caused them trouble.

England finally break through

Despite England getting on top against a relatively passive Germany defense, they did not create much until Kane’s chance later in the half where he was unable to get a shot off as the ball broke to him at close range. Germany had a decent chance with Werner, but eventually the two teams finished the half at 0-0. 

The start of the second half saw Germany a bit more in the game again, and less scenes of England pressing aggressively in their 3-4-3 shape, instead dropping more into a 5-4-1 shape at times. Germany meanwhile were trying not to get forced back into the passive 5-3-2 shape, and instead get more pressure on the England backline. 

Germany also had some possession phases a bit higher up the pitch, and some interesting movements on the right side Kimmich indenting from right wing-back to pick up spaces in the center, while Havertz or Müller drifted wide. The first changes arrived with just over twenty minutes left, as Jack Grealish was introduced for England, replacing Saka. Meanwhile for Germany, Serge Gnabry replaced Werner. 

The introduction of Grealish meant that Sterling moved over to the right, and it was from here that he created his goal, picking the ball up in the right halfspace to the side of Germany’s midfield two, and beating Rüdiger before the ball was shifted wide. Sterling connected with Shaw’s cross, and England were 1-0 up. 

The German attempt at a resurgence at this point was actually rather weak, with a lot of careless turnovers of possession on an individual level. Müller had a great chance in transition but fired wide, and minutes later England added their second with a transition attack of their own, finished off by Kane. 

Emre Can and Leroy Sané were brought on to replace Ginter and Gosens in the final minutes, while Jordan Henderson added fresh legs to the England midfield in place of Rice. England were relatively comfortable defending in a deep block towards the end of the game, and saw out their 2-0 win. 


England’s adapted approach was able to keep Germany’s attack quite limited with their pressing game and gave them a stable base to play from. They were perhaps not as ambitious as they could have been with their possession game when Germany were playing passively, but eventually got their goals in the second half and took their chances well. 

Germany meanwhile were arguably too passive in their defensive scheme, with the drop into a 5-3-2 shape losing them access to England’s buildup and allowing England to play in the corners of their formation too easily. Going forward, they were not structurally terrible, but there was a lot of individual carelessness, and an inability to string together long possession phases that force their opponents back. 

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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