Dubai: “Catch me if you can cos I’m an England man and what you’re looking at is the master plan.” Ok Barnes, that’s enough singing, there’s still work to do, namely getting the team selection and tacticts spot on tomorrow night and I am here to help...
To be fair to England coach Gareth Southgate, he has got every decision absolutely spot on. How do I know this? Well, because he has guided the team to the final, their first in 55 years. So, he must be doing not just something right, but everything right. He also guided the team to the 2018 World Cup semifinal and has now gone one step further but nonetheless, I’m here to offer some friendly advice to our manager before he announces the most important starting 11 of his managerial career.
This is England’s first final since 1966 and they are going to face a giant hurdle in the shape of Italy at Wembley. And this isn’t the Italy of old who would defend a one-goal lead and sit back with their negative tactics. No. Roberto Mancini’s new Italy are an absolute delight to watch. They play on the front foot and seemingly throw men forward at will. There is of course a method to the madness and that old defensive DNA is still present. In a word, they are brilliant and this is going to be the biggest challenge that the Three Lions have faced in decades.
My team and formation
Right then, if I was picking the team, I would definitely retain Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in attack. Kane had a slow start to the tournament and looked a yard off the pace too, but he is coming good when England need him most. Not only did he put the shine on the massive last 16 win against fierce rivals Germany but he bagged two more against Ukraine in the quarterfinal and then made amends for his poor penalty by burying the rebound against the Danes in the semi. Moreover, he has looked lively again and his work off the ball has been a lot better than it was in the group games. So he definitely starts as does Sterling who has been brilliant from the very first game against Croatia. Lively, keen to get on the ball and with the ability to get around the back and whip in dangerous balls into the box or go it alone, Sterling will be key to how England get on tomorrow night. If he is on song, England will be a danger.
Working from the back, Jordan Pickford keeps his place in goal because overall he has been superb. In fact, he looks like an imposter - this is not the Pickford that we all know, and hate. He has looked confident and composed - but we did see a glimpse of his old self in the semifinal. His kicking and throwing almost lead to goals for Denmark and he could also have done better with Daamsgard's free-kick. That was the first goal England have conceded but credit also goes to the defence. John Stone and Harry McGuire have forged a great partnership at the heart of the defence while full-backs Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw have really impressed in their defensive and attacking duties. Shaw had competition for the left-back berth from Ben Chillwell but he has made the position his own after looking rock solid and also by grabbing three assists. Walker’s blistering pace will be needed to contain the likes of Insinge, Immobile and Barella.
But does Southgate beef up the defence a bit more? After all, England are facing one of the best attacking teams in the world. If I was him, I would be tempted to move Walker inside to form a three at the back and then include Kieran Trippier as right-back. Not only would this make the team more solid but in Trippier, they would have a dead ball specialist ready to provide ammunition for Kane and co. Sure, this would mean five defenders on the pitch, but they all wouldn’t just be sitting back there; the three centre backs would sit deep but it would allow Shaw and Trippier to bomb forwards and join the attack. And when Italy have the ball, the full-backs would drop back to make a five-man defence which would (on paper at least…) be harder to break down.
Then in midfield, I would play Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and - this may surprise a few people - Jordan Henderson. Yes, three box-to-box runners who bring a physical edge to their game. They’re not blessed with skill but they will work their socks off for the team and will create a potent engine room that will not stop ticking over. Henderson has regained fitness and is an important player and with these three in the middle of the park, England will be very solid. Yes, they will also be a little workman like but that won’t matter. Finals are for winning – not for looking good or creating pretty patterns with neat one-touch play.
These three will cover every blade of grass, tackle, and harry the Azzurri from minute one and this will be key; stopping the Italians from playing their game will be massively important. If Italy get into the swing of things early on, it could spell trouble for England. Rice, Phillips and Henderson must try to stop the game as often as possible when Italy have the ball. They’ll have to concede petty free kicks because disrupting Italy’s flow will help to keep them at bay and prevent them from gaining any momentum. And with Shaw and Trippier to their left and right, the trio will have an outlet to get an attack going.
Quality on the bench
So, my formation would be 3-5-2 – a system that worked against the Germans in the last 16, but which Southgate ditched for the next two games and rightly so. Ukraine and Denmark offered less of an attacking threat and so 4-4-2 worked best against them. But I feel he may bring a 3-5-2 back against the stylish Italians. It would be risky to fight fire with fire so to speak and I can’t imagine him going gung-ho and throwing caution to the wind. The final may not be as exciting as the two semis were, but there is too much at stake for both teams and I believe we’ll see a cagey first half before anything really happens in the second 45. What this also means is if England are chasing the game, there will be a wealth of attacking options to bring on such as Saka, Sancho, Foden, Grealish and Mount. So, the bench will be very strong if Southgate needs to call on it but I feel we will need extra time and, yes, penalties to decide this one.
England have buried several ghosts in this tournament – from finally beating Germany in a knockout match to getting to their first final in over five decades – and so the next monkey to get off their backs is to finally win a penalty shootout which has so often caused heartache and misery.
But, not this time.