With the Euros belatedly planned to come this summer, fans are already looking ahead to what the strongest starting lineup is going to be. As usual, I’ve seen some ludicrious suggestions and people tend to disagree with my England opinions. I haven’t really decided my XI yet but I’m going to use this article to document my thought process. I also listened to Chris Summersell speak about this recently and has made me think about it a lot because I agree with what he said.
My Philosophy for Selecting International Lineups
The main thing to consider is how that Southgate isn’t going to have a lot of time with these players. He can’t create a really well structured, tactically complicated team who is going to just dominate the Euros. Something I’ve talked about recently is player connections and looking at a lineup by pairing players, sort of similar to features of Fifa Ultimate Team and Football Manager. This is important as playing players with this connection already is crucial to consider as they won’t have time to really build it in training. This is why keeping a fairly consistent international squad is important. Therefore we want to build the team around players who play together as much as possible.
Along with this, the players should play a tactically familiar style. If Sean Dyche managed England and wanted to play his style, the top players wouldn’t be used to it and players like Trent, Stones and Foden aren’t going to suit it. Therefore we need to pick players from similar teams who play fairly similar styles, or at least have done before.
Also, I think people don’t consider how different tournaments are. The team I’d pick for a tournament compared to a league will be different. For an international tournament, I only care about winning. Therefore, my squad is all about effectiveness and functionality. I don’t care about aesthetics or how exciting you are to watch. If you’re familiar with my work, you know my focus is on younger players, this goes out the window in international football as it doesn’t matter.
Form is important to an extent, but just because a player is in better form than a more established player, he won’t be making it. And I’m not shoehorning an in-form player in if he doesn’t fit a role.
What System Will Southgate Play?
At the 2018 World Cup, we played a 3–1–4–2 which was in my opinion terrible. It was so bad, and it has affected my faith in Southgate somewhat. Not just in terms of aesthetics, I thought it functioned terribly. But we got the results we needed and made it to the semis, so I have no complaints and that summer was one of the best periods of my life, so far anyway. So while I was happy we got the results, I still want to see a functional side also.
Despite living in a pandemic, we’ve played quite a few internationals recently.
- Iceland 09/20 4–3–3
- Denmark 09/20 3–4–3
- Wales 10/20 3–4–3
- Ireland 11/20 3–4–3
- Belgium 11/20 3–4–3
- Iceland 11/20 3–4–3
As you can see, Southgate seems keen of a 3–4–3. Most people are building 4–2–3–1 or 4–3–3 which I think makes sense considering the numbers we have in attack but there’s no point building a 4–3–3 if we’re not going to use one.
I’d say we’re going to try and be possession heavy, quick in attack with combination play when possible and then exploit crosses and set pieces. We’ll probably play a fairly high line and press from a mid-block and press high. Also if we can win penalties, that’s useful also.
A 3–4–3 is awkward because out of the top teams, only Chelsea play a back three, and that’s only recently under Tuchel. West Ham do, City do in possession but overall our players largely play 4–3–3 or 4–2–3–1. Therefore I’d choose that, but I’m not sure Gareth will, so I’m working around it and hopefully you like my solution.
I’m not going to focus on a 3–4–3 as formations don’t actually mean much. We just want a midfield two, our full/wing backs providing our width and a back three in buildup, so hopefully what I propose meets those things.
Who is between the sticks?
Let’s get this out of the way. Personally I’ll feel a lot more confident with Dean Henderson at the back. Pickford hasn’t been good enough as much as I loved him at the World Cup and Pope is excellent but he isn’t quick off his line and suits Burnley’s low block where they encourage long shots more than having to save 1v1s and close range shots. Henderson hasn’t played much this season which is frustrating and I can understand why people might not choose Henderson but I’ll be more confident with him there.
The Rest of the Squad
We’ve done keepers so we have 20 players to pick. This list has 33 on it so we need to cut it down. If you’re not on this list then you’re not being considered so apolgies. Sancho and Rice are the only players who are the sole representives from their club and that’s because I think they’re important.
This is how I’ve cut it down to 20. I now have 5 players as sole representitves of their club sides which is annoyed but not really avoidable. It does mean I’ll be looking higher up the table to select the starting XI though.
So here is out squad depth and need to select the starting XI from this. City are on a huge win streak, Southgate is a fan of Pep and so I want as many of them in as possible.
I’m going to pick two natural centre halves and then I want three natural full backs into the squad. Making up the back three will definitely be Maguire and Stones. Stones is one of my favourite players on his day, is an archetype modern centre half and important for us now he’s back in form. Maguire is United’s captain, is strong in the air and good on the ball, he’s in.
I really like Luke Shaw but I’m going with Kyle Walker to recreate the back three used at the World Cup. Walker and Stones are great at playing out of the back and Walker’s pace will prove important to playing in a high line as his recovery defending is excellent. I wouldn’t be against Gomez for Maguire but ideally Maguire starts, especially as Gomez hasn’t played in a while and I’m not even 100% sure he’s back for the Euros.
On the right it has to be Trent Alexander-Arnold. He’s excellent and deserves his place. Reece James is good too but has less experience and Trent is a better earlier crosser, which is what I want. With my defensive setup, Trent won’t be exposed defensively and we can play more to his strengths.
On the left, I’m going to put Ben Chilwell. But honestly between him and Shaw is tough. Both have played a lot with Maguire so it’s not an issue there but Shaw has more international experience and I trust him more defensively and is more useful in the buildup. In games where we expect to dominate more, Chilwell would be better. I actually chose Shaw when I originally wrote this, but when doing the tactical side, Chilwell suits the role better so I’m going for him instead.
This is easy for me. Rice and Henderson. People disagree and have laughed when I’ve said this before. But, as I’ve said, the focus is on function rather than aesthetic and these two are the perfect examples of this philosophy. I want an industrial midfield with great engines, who are industrial and strong defensively with good ranges of passing.
Henderson is a captain and leader who is passionate, links well with TAA and plays a possession based high pressing system. Rice is England’s best defensive midfielder and although he’s the only West Ham player he is a really good player in my opinion and great defensively. Both can cover into the back line if Maguire or Walker move up the pitch.
This is the toughest one really and where most people disagree. My selection is Rashford, Kane and Sterling. Kane and Sterling are my guaranteed starters. I’d drop Rashford for Calvert-Lewin depending on the opposition. If we’re struggling to do much than cross, get DCL on. Rashford has more experience, is more versatile, meaning the front three can all rotate and gives us more pace.
Grealish is incredible but is the only Villa player and lacks international and tournament experience. He also doesn’t play a possession and pressing system with Villa. Sancho again is great and can press but lacks international experience and playing with any of our team.
Maddison and Mount are also players I like but don’t offer the same threat as the front three in my opinion. If we were struggling to penetrate against a low block I’d look to get one of these two on for Rashford or Mount into midfield. Both are great pressers, Maddison is a good set piece taker but we have TAA for that also.
How I’d Setup
So here’s the team. I’m not putting it in a formation as we’re going to be fairly fluid so I’m avoiding traditional formation descriptors.
Henderson; Maguire, Stones, Walker; Shaw, Rice, Henderson, TAA; Rashford, Kane, Sterling
United 3, City 3, Liverpool 2, West Ham 1, Spurs 1, Chelsea 1.
If that’s all you wanted to know the you can stop reading here. From here I’m going to ramble about my tactical ideology and how these players fit.
Here is how we’d look in possession in the midfield and defensive thirds respectively. 3–2–5 essentially but when the ball is in the final third I want Walker to step up into midfield and can join the attack if needed, he needs to be pretty aware though and anticipate the need to drop back and utilise his recovery pace.
Rashford and Sterling can interchange wings with Kane and Sterling interchanging depth and both able to drop between the lines and into midfield but ideally not both at the same time. I want Rashford to play Son’s role at Spurs with Kane looking to receive with his back to goal and play over the top into space when it’s there.
Shaw vs Chilwell is the hardest decision but I changed to Chilwell because he’ll be more effective in attack. However, against better teams where we’ll have less possession, Shaw would start.
From the back I’d be looking to play behind into space whenever possible. I wouldn’t use Rice or Henderson much unless they are in lots of space. If we’re limited for space we’re mainly looking to play down the right and looking to progress the ball as quickly as possible into Kane or Sterling. The aim is to play vertically as much as possible and playing into space so our front three can run at the keeper.
I’d have Rashford narrow, always looking to run behind. Chilwell would provide width and be an option for diagonals and switched when in space to inject speed into the attack.
I’d want Henderson and Rice being used in up-back-through combinations to put chipped balls over the top and I’d want Rice to carry into space when it’s available but I don’t want these two taking risks with the ball at their feet or coming under pressure.
In the final third, we’d look like this. I want to focus our attack down the right whenever possible. Obviously we don’t want to be one dimensional and we will be able to play down the left, but down the with we’ll be more successful.
This is a big factor in choosing Chilwell over Shaw, he can attack the post, be agressive going forward and track back quickly. Henderson and Rice are there for the second ball, as is Walker.
Attacking goal at speed with combination play among the front three or playing one of our attackers in behind is the priority. But if we end up in the final third against a block, I want to utilise Walker and Trent down the right. We want options in the box, with Chilwell attacking the back post and Sterling as a cut back option and also for 2nd balls. If we’re in this situation constantly and not able to attack the way we want, get Calvert-Lewin on for Rashford.
We want Trent putting early crosses for our players to run onto and attack. If the cross isn’t on or the defence is sat on their 6 yard line and we have no space to cross into, we want Walker to help. He can make runs to create space for Trent to cross, and he can also make driving runs into the box to then cutback into the box, this is also useful for winning corners, which with the side of our team we want to utilise. If we have DCL on, we have 7 outfield players who are 6'+ who can attack Trent’s deliveries. Not that we’d commit all of them.
Out of possession we’d be in a 4–4–2 or 4–2–2–2 if you like. We’re a big team so we want to press high and force long balls to give us possession back. We’d press out of a 4–4–2 block in the way that Burnley did so well with their recent win over Liverpool. Trent would be our right winger in this scenario and could interchange with Walker is needed.
I don’t really like back threes out of possession, personally I don’t think the third centre back offers much and having an extra man in midfield is more effective for winning the ball and in transition. That’s why I use essentially asymmetric full backs to create a back three in possession but a four in defence.
If we’re getting beaten for pace and they’re getting in behind our line, I’d get Gomez on for Maguire and reduce Walker’s attacking responsibilities.
Our main aim is to stop the opposition from playing the way they want to. Force play wide as much as possible, don’t allow them to play through the block. When pressing high, we want to make them pass into full backs, using this as a trigger, use the touchline as a defender force them long. Backward passes and poor passes are also triggers, mainly want to leave the keeper and centre backs alone though.
We want to dominate transitions and chaos. With the players we have, we should be fairly strong at it and then we want to play forwards as quickly as possible once we’ve regained possession and I’m happy to take risks with passes over the top.
Overall, that’s how I’d setup. I’d keep it fairly simple. In attack play quickly and forwards, let Sterling and Kane lead the attack and play into space whenever possible. Defensively, we want to stay compact and press out of the block but not overcommit ourselves.
Our limited training time would focus on corner routines, buildup, forward combination play and attacking down the right. Unless one of these players gets seriously injured, there’s not much that can happen between now and the end of the season to change this so Southgate should start prepping players early with a few pointers about their roles and what he wants from them. The players on the bench give us different options depending on the context of the game which is great and makes tactical substitutions obvious.
I know people will be angry at leaving Sancho and Grealish out of the starting some will be horrified at the midfield pair, but this is what I’d like to see. Hopefully I’ve given a fairly simplistic set of principles for how we’d play even if I may have oversimplified aspects.
Thanks for reading and make sure you’re following me on Twitter. Any feedback on the article is appreciated but do remember that this is subjective. If you have any strongly worded comments for me, you can go here.