Early murmurings suggest it’s going to be a back three for England tonight as they take on Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
Expect a line up like this for the big game: Pickford, Trippier, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw, Rice, Philips, Mount, Sterling, Kane.
It’s certainly a gamble from Gareth Southgate for the biggest game of his career, but he’s shown in this tournament that he’s ready to adapt his formation and playing style depending on the opposition.
Although England have mostly lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation in these European Championships, the team went to a 3-4-3 against Germany and it worked wonders to deliver a 2-0 win and end the Three Lions’ terrible record against their old rivals.
Sure, the football may have been prettier in the 4-0 win over Ukraine and the 2-1 semi-final victory over Denmark, but Southgate has one mission and one mission only this evening: to bring home the trophy.
For too long, England have under-achieved in major tournaments due to trying to crowbar all their star players into the XI, with tactics more of an afterthought.
That is no longer the case, with Southgate generally working on a variety of systems, and working from there; if that means Bukayo Saka having more of a role at Euro 2020 than Jack Grealish, then so be it, and if it means Saka then being dropped for Kieran Trippier in the final, then that’s how it goes.
There’s a danger in showing opponents too much respect, but it would also be foolish to put pressure on England’s players to play a style that’s beyond them against such a top team, or to put on a show when they’ve generally done best when building on a solid defence and midfield.
Learning lessons from Chelsea?
A few of these players were involved in Chelsea’s Champions League final success in the season just gone, and that could be a useful blue-print for Southgate, even if it’s only likely to be Mason Mount who starts both games.
Against Manchester City in Porto, Chelsea also played a back three, and were prepared to play most of the game without the ball, with City dominating possession 61% to 39%.
Of course, these are different teams in a different game, with Italy a more direct side than Pep Guardiola’s men, though there are similarities as well.
Guardiola made a bit of a mess in that final by lining up without any recognised defensive midfielder, and Italy might end up adopting a similar system tonight, with Marco Verratti and Jorginho hardly in the mould of players like N’Golo Kante.
England can take advantage of that as Chelsea did, with Mount again perhaps playing in a slightly free role behind Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.
Expect Sterling to drift and change roles in the match as well, as his pace could be useful more centrally than we sometimes see him, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci likely to be vulnerable to players who run at them.
Of course, England don’t really have a Kante of their own either, but the defensive midfield partnership of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips has worked well for them so far, and can ensure players like Verratti and Jorginho don’t have the kind of time on the ball that they’d like to.
Like Chelsea, England look like they’re ready to embrace their underdog status somewhat, and that pragmatic approach seems the most likely path to victory tonight.