REPINO, Russia (Reuters) - The Premier League has long been a scapegoat for England’s below-par performances at major tournaments but manager Gareth Southgate says he has benefited from close study of the tactics used by its foreign coaches.
England start their World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday with a formation Southgate believes will play to their strengths of pace and attacking flair.
“We’ve got some of the best coaches in the world working in our league so there are some fascinating ideas,” Southgate told the FA’s website.
“The more you watch a team, the more you start to see familiar patterns of play and how they build up. The season has been a great contrast of styles and philosophies,” he added.
Much has been made of the impact of Manchester City’s Spanish coach Pep Guardiola on players like Kyle Walker, John Stones and Raheem Sterling but Southgate’s system owes more to the approach of Italian Antonio Conte at Chelsea.
The London club won the Premier League in 2017 playing with three central defenders and two advanced wing-backs – a central striker and a floating winger/support forward in Eden Hazard.
That is essentially the formula Southgate is expected to use in the World Cup with Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young likely to occupy the wing-back positions which Conte used to such good effect with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso.
While Guardiola and Liverpool’s Juergen Klopp also make use of attacking full backs, they do so as part of more traditional back fours whereas Southgate is adopting Conte’s preference for three central defenders.
That requires a different kind of centre-half, capable of covering the wider areas when a counter-attack – hence the use of Walker on the right and probably Harry Maguire on the left.
It is no carbon copy of Conte’s approach though – whereas the Italian often used two holding midfielders in N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, Southgate is expected to go with one in the form of Jordan Henderson.
Sterling is likely to be given the “Hazard role” in support of striker Harry Kane with Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli providing attacking support from midfield.
Southgate, who coached England’s Under-21 team, has tried different systems but says the common factor is a desire to get the most quality on the pitch.
“Predominantly, when I started with the U21s, it was 4-2-3-1 for a spell. Then in order to get our best players on the pitch, we played with a diamond for an 18-month period when we won the Toulon tournament. Now we’ve moved to three at the back with the seniors.
“Essentially, you’re trying to get your best players on the field in a formation that allows them to play at their very best and allows you to win matches – because sooner or later you have to win games,” he said.
It is a system that makes England well suited to counter-attacking and playing in high-tempo matches. But perhaps it makes Southgate’s side better suited to facing stronger sides than less ambitious opponents who will look to defend in numbers and slow games down.
Southgate has a young and dynamic group of players but English footballers have rarely looked comfortable in slow, possession based games. The first two opponents in Group G, Tunisia and Panama, will likely try to limit the opportunities for breaks, reduce space and slow the tempo.
The first major test for Southgate’s philosophy will be whether his team can impose their desire for an open, attacking contest on their opponents.
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond