Ukraine – England: Uninspiring Possession Leads To Draw (1-1)

England had the majority of the ball in this match but struggled to create chances as Ukraine’s compact 4-4-2 system managed to hold them to a draw. Gareth Southgate’s flexible 4-3-3 shape showed some reasonable team tactical ideas, but slight structural issues and a lack of cutting edge cost England the points.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

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Ukraine were second in the qualifying group coming into this game after wins against North Macedonia and Malta over the summer with new coach Serhiy Rebrov. They now sought to avoid a repeat of the meeting between these teams earlier this year, where England were comfortable winners.

Ukraine lined up in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Yukhym Konoplia, Illya Zabarnyi, Mykola Matviyenko, and Vitalii Mykolenko at the back. Taras Stepanenko and Oleksandr Zinchenko were the central midfielders, with Viktor Tsyhankov and Mykhailo Mudryk wide. Heorhiy Sudakov then played behind Roman Yaremchuk up front.

England enjoyed a dominant position in the group prior to this match, having won all matches including beating Italy in Naples. England seem likely to be favorites alongside France going into next summer’s tournament, with the spotlight on Gareth Southgate to find the right tactical arrangements for this talented group of players.

Southgate went with a 4-3-3 system for this match, with a back four of Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire, Marc Guehi, and Ben Chilwell. Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham were in midfield, while James Maddison was handed a start on the left side of the frontline alongside Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka.

England’s flat possession game

Southgate’s side dominated possession throughout the game, right from the earliest stages. Ukraine mostly sat back in a compact 4-4-2 shape, happy to try and frustrate England. This was largely the result they achieved, as England struggled to manufacture good shooting chances, especially in the first half.

England started in a 4-3-3 shape, but as is common in Southgate’s use of a 4-3-3 system, there was rotation between the fullback, central midfielder and winger on each side of the formation. There was one arrangement that commonly arose from these transformations though, which was the use of a 3-1-6 structure in many possession phases.

Maddison started from the left side, but naturally his attributes are best used in central areas. He would drift into central areas then, either in the left halfspace or as the number ten. This vacated space on the left wing for Chilwell to overlap into, while Bellingham would adapt his movements with Maddison’s around the left halfspace and number ten positions, or occasionally dropping deep to try and add rhythm to England’s ball circulation.

England were quite ambitious in terms of the possession structure, but struggled to create. 

On the other side, Walker would often form a back three with Maguire and Guehi, while Saka held the width and Henderson played quite an advanced role between the lines. The inclusion of Henderson in the lineup with this role in mind was slightly mystifying given his lack of natural skillset for operating between the lines, especially in comparison to other members of the squad.

Again, there was some flexibility on the right, as Henderson sometimes drifted wide to allow Saka to indent, or Walker would make runs from deep as in the case of his goal. Also evident in the goal was the role of Kane, who often dropped off the frontline to get involved.

One of the bigger issues for England was connecting with those players who were stationed between the lines or on the last line. There was often some distance between the rest defense and the more advanced players, and the compactness of Ukraine’s shape meant that the gaps to thread the ball through were small. England’s better moments often occurred when the likes of Bellingham or Maddison dropped out of the shape to receive and create dynamic situations in midfield, rather than waiting in more advanced positions.

England continue to struggle

The game was level at half-time after Zinchenko’s strike had been cancelled out by Walker’s equalizer. England had much of the ball in the second half but without building quite the same degree of territorial dominance, and there were more transition phases in the game.  

When Ukraine did have the ball, Stepanenko and Zinchenko were responsible for much of the buildup, with the latter also having freedom to advance further up the pitch. The fullbacks would advance and the wingers indented, while Sudakov drifted through central midfield.

England’s defending was quite stable and low-risk. 

England were generally not too ambitious in pressing, instead starting their pressure from the halfway line and using triggers to put pressure on Ukraine’s backline. They pressed in a 4-1-4-1 formation, although Ukraine’s possession phases were not overly long, so England rarely needed to drop into their compact defensive shape.

England had most of their shots early in the second half, but the chance that led to Walker’s goal would end up being the highest xG opportunity England created all game, as most of the proceeding shots were not of great quality.

After the hour mark, Southgate decided to make his first substitutions. Bellingham and Maddison were the ones removed, as Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford replaced them. England’s formation without the ball also switched to a 4-2-3-1 arrangement here, as Henderson played alongside Rice with Foden as the number ten.

In the second half, England were not able to push Ukraine back into their own half quite as sustainably as in the first, and Ukraine were enjoying more spells of possession. England’s own possession game became quite unfocused as well, with the substitutions seemingly making the attack less cohesive. In fact, they only had two shots in the final twenty-five minutes. The same issues from the first half resurfaced, with difficulty connecting between the lines, and England’s key attackers struggled to affect the game positively. In the end, both teams left with a point, which seemed a fair result overall.


Ukraine showed themselves as tough to beat here, and it is not that surprising that they are yet to lose under Rebrov. The defensive 4-4-2 shape is compact and well-organized, and although the possession game is not quite at the same level, they still have enough quality to hurt opponents going forward.

England meanwhile were below their usual standard. The team tactical ideas in possession with the flexible 4-3-3 system were interesting, and England were defensively stable. There was unfortunately a bit of trouble connecting with the players inside the opponent’s shape in possession, and key attackers struggled to get into the game. Southgate has shown himself competent in creating tactically strong England sides in recent years though, and this result need not be a cause for panic for England fans.

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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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