England World Cup 2022 Qatar Tactics Preview

Risk and Reward

Fifty-six years have passed since their one and only World Cup win, the famous 1966 trophy won on home soil, and just a year since finishing as Euro 2020 runners up. Gareth Souhgate’s England are in it to win it, but may need to manage their risk taking a bit different than before.

This tactical preview has been written by Josh Manley.

Last year saw England produce their best tournament performance in decades, as they reached the EURO 2020 Final. Gareth Southgate had succeeded in creating a team that could compete tactically with the best teams that Europe had to offer, something which could not be said of previous England sides.

England’s success in the tournament was based in large part on their tactical stability. They were able to keep games under control through stifling opponents’ attacks with a strong backline and using possession as a defensive tool where necessary in order to slow games down.

Still, Southgate was criticised by some for his preoccupation with managing risk. In the EURO 2020 Final against Italy, England have been accused of being too passive once they were ahead, inviting Italy onto them rather than trying to kill the game off.

England’s had issues with their attack earlier in the tournament as well, shown by their 0-0 draw with Scotland where they were unable to break down an organized opposition. England’s Nations League campaign this year showed these issues even further, where they only managed one goal in their first five games before the 3-3 draw against Germany.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Southgate has improved this England side tactically since he became coach. The question coming into this World Cup is whether Southgate will be able to balance risk and stability in order to bring this talented group of players one step further this time.

The squad

The timing of this World Cup within the club football season has presented many national team coaches with challenging situations in terms of the fitness and injury status of key players. Arguably Southgate’s biggest issues in this respect have been in the fullback area.

Reece James would likely have had a good chance of starting but unfortunately misses out through injury. Ben Chilwell at left back will also not make the tournament. Southgate ended up picking just one natural left back in the squad in Luke Shaw, a player who has had a timely improvement in form at club level. Kieran Trippier will likely be relied upon for backup in this position.

If England use a back three, Trippier might well be first choice at right wing-back however, as Southgate has shown a tendency to prefer him over Trent Alexander-Arnold. Meanwhile Ben White’s brilliant form at Arsenal has provided Southgate with the perfect solution while Kyle Walker continues to recover from injury. The ability of these two players to play as right back in a back four or as a center-back in a back three offers England valuable tactical flexibility.

At center-back, Harry Maguire has had his issues at club level, but Southgate clearly sees him as a trusted senior member of the squad and one should not be surprised if he starts in England’s backline. John Stones merits being a key part of the team in this position, while Eric Dier and Conor Coady are the remaining options.

Declan Rice should start as the deepest midfielder and is likely to be partnered by Jude Bellingham who will have license to go forward, and may very well turn out to be one of the key players for England’s chances of success.

Conor Gallagher provides an interesting backup option as a box-to-box midfielder, while Kalvin Phillips is included despite still being in the process of regaining fitness. Jordan Henderson is another inclusion in the midfield area, although he is likely behind Phillips in the pecking order.

In the attacking midfield and winger positions Southgate has plenty of options. Phil Foden is one of Europe’s best young attackers, although he is yet to quite hit these heights in an England shirt. Bukayo Saka meanwhile is in great form for his club and is in with a good chance of starting for England.

Another player in great form is James Maddison. Although unlikely to start, he offers a good option, and Southgate has talked about his set-piece abilities and ability to score from range as things which could add an extra dimension to England against stubborn defenses.

Raheem Sterling has been prominent for England under Southgate and was a star player during EURO 2020. He will be in with a good chance of starting for England, while the likes of Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford each offer good attacking options as well.

Finally, Harry Kane is an obvious inclusion as England’s captain and talisman, while Callum Wilson was given a place in the squad as a backup striker having played his role in an impressive Newcastle United side this season.

Tactical choices

The group stage and first knockout game of EURO 2020 saw England use a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system, before then switching to a 3-4-3 formation for the remaining knockout games. It seems clear that Southgate sees this 3-4-3 shape as a safer option in games when England are facing top opposition.

The recent Nations League campaign also saw similar formations being used. In the away game against Germany, England used a 4-2-3-1 formation out of possession and transitioned to a 3-4-3 shape when they had the ball and seeing something like this in the World Cup would not be that far fetched either. Southgate has right backs such as Walker and White in the squad that make this kind of plan easily viable if he wishes to use it again.

The 4-3-3 shape with just one defensive midfielder, usually Rice, is one that England used in their opening game of EURO 2020. England have played some of their more attacking football in this formation over the last couple of years, with the wing rotations in this formation being something that Southgate seems to coach well. However, an England 4-3-3 system has not been seen since the 4-0 mauling at the hands of Hungary this summer, and at the current moment seems less likely to be used at the World Cup than the other two systems mentioned.

England used their 3-4-3 system starting their final two Nations League games. Sometimes England can struggle for tempo in possession when using this formation. The defensive transitions are strong, but this can come at the expense of players in the rest-defense A team’s defensive organization at the moment that the ball is lost to the opponent.being too risk-averse and developing a disconnect with the attack.

England’s buildup can become laboured in these situations.

England’s buildup can become laboured in these situations.

Bellingham becomes a particularly important player for England in this respect. His driving runs from midfield are critical in injecting tempo into England’s play, especially in the 3-4-3 shape. He also fits well into the 4-2-3-1 system should England chose to go that route.

England switched to the 4-2-3-1 shape in their recent game against Germany when they were behind. Southgate seems more likely to use this shape in situations where England need a goal, or they expect to dominate the ball.

It does allow the inclusion of another attacking midfielder in the lineup, and it is likely to be the system where players such as Mount, Grealish, and Maddison would see more game time. The extra player in the number ten position can help England to be better connected within the opponent’s shape.

Whichever formation Southgate chooses, one can expect England to have solid tactical foundations. There are certainly criticisms to be had in certain aspects of their game, but England usually arrive with a good level of compactness and intensity without the ball, and a possession shape that is structurally stable.


International tournaments are often decided by small margins. After all, England were only a penalty shootout away from winning EURO 2020 last year. Southgate has shown his ability to create a side with the tactical stability to weather the storm of knockout matches. He now seeks to find the right strategic balance of risk and reward in order to win the biggest prize in football.

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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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