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System over players, could this be Southgate's best decision?

A new found identity could be the difference for the Three Lions in Russia.

As England prepare for the final World Cup warm up game on Thursday, we analyse their expectations in Russia this summer.

Gareth Southgate’s squad is widely perceived as underwhelming in comparison to previous World Cup campaigns, but in contrast, his squad are showing their belief in a system which represents a change on the Three Lions’ previous shortcomings.

The main gripe with the squad has been a lack of a creative force in the middle of midfield. Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier have enjoyed respectable club campaigns; however both tend to cover the same bases when it comes to lining up for the national team. The loss of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has come as a blow to Southgate, with the Liverpool midfield showing a new lease of life under Jürgen Klopp. Despite his place in the squad far from assured at this time last year, his move to Merseyside has shown what the 24 year old is capable of – and he is still young enough to have an impact for England beyond this summer.

Despite the lack of choices in midfield, Southgate’s decision to set the team up in a 5-3-2/3-4-2-1 hybrid formation has seen the squad find a sense of identity – something that England teams have struggled to show in many of its previous campaigns. The Brazilians, Spanish and Germans all have their styles, and although England’s manager still has his critics, he has introduced a distinguished approach to how he wants his team to play. Could that make the difference in Russia?

The decision to select Kyle Walker as part of a back three demonstrates Southgate’s desire to build the team from the back, and doing so at speed. Walker has enjoyed arguably his best ever season under Pep Guardiola, winning his first two trophies and regarded by some as one of the best full backs in Europe. He will partner John Stones and one of either Gary Cahill or Harry Maguire in Russia. Stones is a certain starter due to his ability to bring the ball out of defence – in a way which lifts the burden from either Dier or Henderson – and his familiarity with Walker could prove significant in England’s fixtures. Cahill is the squads most experienced player and has shown signs of improving this season, after patchy form in the previous. Harry Maguire is a relatively new introduction to the squad, but his steel and no nonsense approach may be preferred due to Cahill’s similarities to Stones. This back three will protect Everton’s number one Jordan Pickford, who has been given the same jersey by Southgate.

The belief from Southgate to experiment this structure against stronger nations such as Italy, Netherlands, Brazil and Germany proves that he trusts his defenders to contribute significantly in Russia. In these four friendlies, the Three Lions have conceded just once. Southgate, however, does have a harder decision to who plays just in front of them. The afore mentioned Dier and Henderson are guaranteed at least some game time, but Ruben Loftus-Cheek – who has enjoyed a fruitful loan spell at Crystal Palace - has thrown his name in to the hat with some impressive displays in these friendlies. The Chelsea loanee has both a physical and technical presence, which could have an impact against the likes of Moussa Dembele and Maruoane Fellaini of England’s group G opponents Belgium. The inclusion of Loftus Cheek has not been largely disputed, but the inclusion of Fabian Delph and Danny Welbeck has left fans bemused as Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere misses out.

Wilshere has had obvious injury issues, but his creative spark is something many England fans feel is required in Russia. It is unlikely Delph or Welbeck will make much of an impact at the World Cup, and were preferred rather for their versatility. That attribute is something Southgate clearly desires, with Ashley Young and Trent Alexander Arnold in contention to start at wing back, but also have the ability to play further forward or inside respectively. Both are at opposite ends of their careers but have enjoyed standout seasons in the north of the country.

The fact all of these players are coming together to fit this system demonstrates that Southgate will not fall victim to shoehorning as many of his best players in to a formation, and will prefer system over players than vice versa. It is fair to say many domestic and national managers have try and failed to do this in recent years, with 2014 finalists Argentina stuttering to qualification, and subsequently hammered in friendlies due to their attack-heavy pool of players. Jorge Sampaoli has the likes of Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Dybala and Di Maria to fit in to an effective system, with many Argentinians left underwhelmed since the managers’ arrival. Southgate has shown so far that his preferred system has been solid defensively, but he’ll need his attackers on form to taste any success in Eastern Europe.

Luckily for England, their striker will score even when he’s playing badly. Recently appointed captain Harry Kane has shown time and time again that he is clinical in front of goal, and his goal-scoring touch will be vital to any progression at the World Cup. His weight of expectation has been slightly alleviated with the red-hot form of Raheem Sterling this season; the City winger is likely to play just off Kane, and his best ever goal-scoring season has seen him travel as arguably the country’s most important player. For months of the season, Sterling was unplayable under Pep and although his national form is inconsistent to say the least, a central role will allow him to continue his successful domestic form. There is also the impact of the likes of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli, all of whom are capable of playing various roles across the front line and provide the pace and power to get in behind.

England should expect to progress from group G, whether or not that is in first replace remains to be seen; however their chances are a lot higher than most would like to think. Belgians have been largely sceptical since Roberto Martinez’s arrival, with loud boos audible in recent friendlies – many of which related to the managers strange decision to leave out Radja Nainggolan. The tie on June 28th will be England’s biggest challenge, if their newly found system can keep De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku at bay; they have a great chance of going in to the last 16 as group winners. Doing so would see them face Poland or Colombia most likely; however Group H is one of the most difficult to call. It is far from the easiest route to the quarters; however the nation’s expectations will be at least to be within touching distance.

Gareth Southgate has had his fair share of critics, but his squad is definitely capable of showing some progression at the very least. The roster is young – the second youngest of the tournament at an average age of 25.8 – and inexperience is a risk, however the system instilled to the squad is one that provides more optimism than previous campaigns. A large portion of the squad have already benefitted from the high pressing and intensity of Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, and that familiarity may prove to be a catalyst for Southgate over the next month.

By Lewis McKenzie 05/06/18