Euro 2020: England v Denmark - Gareth Southgate ponders his many options for next tale of the unexpected - Stuart Rayner
It would not be an England game at this European Championship without much head-scratching before kick-off about what team Gareth Southgate will pick.
Tonight the Three Lions face Denmark at Wembley in what will be the biggest, most career-defining match of the former Middlesbrough manager’s career until the next one, if the next one happens to be Sunday’s final.
Southgate continues to find new ways to impress and recently he has somehow managed to do so at the same time as infuriating vast swathes of the population with his refusal to play this flair player or that, or his stubborn loyalty to those who have delivered for him in the past.
We knew his all-round good-blokeness was great for generating the spirit in a camp which is so important at major tournaments, but his tactical adroitness is starting to attract admiration too, even if sometimes it is grudging.
“We’ve got to pick the right players for the right moments and we’ve to sense what will cause the opposition most problems,” he explained before Saturday’s quarter-final against Ukraine. If it sounds incredibly obvious, it has been a change in tack.
Before the World Cup semi-final three years ago, it was obvious what Southgate was going to do: Jordan Pickford in goal, the White Rose back three, Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young at wing-back, Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard between them, and Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane up front. The Three Lions had hit on a formula that worked, and stuck by it.
There was a rethink for the 2018-19 Nations League: 4-3-3 all the way to another semi-final.
This tournament has followed a different pattern. As has been the case with England since the year before the year dot, we all pick our teams, Southgate picks a different one, changed from his last, and he gets proven right.
It is not just the personnel, but the formation that has shifted. Generally England have been somewhere between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, depending how Mason Mount plays (whilst he flits between No 10 and No 8, Jack Grealish has to be the former really), but then there was Germany.
It was not a curveball. Southgate tried out 3-4-3 quite a bit over the season just gone and although results were mixed, it seemed pretty likely in the build-up to the last-16 tie he would go that way, and he did. Once more, he got it right.
The reason was that Germany played 3-4-3, and Southgate felt if the game turned into 10 one-on-one battles, his 10 would beat Joachim Low’s 10. They did, 2-0.
“We wanted aggressive pressure all over the field and felt matching them up was the way to do that,” he explained afterwards. “We felt the speed in behind Harry (Kane) would cause them a problem, and I thought (Bukayo) Saka and Sterling did that from the start.”
But it was back to 4-3-3 in Rome against a Ukraine side who also played three at the back, but only two up front. They finished the first half stronger when Serhiy Kryvtsov’s injury forced a switch to the back four, but were still overpowered.
So what about Denmark, who play the same 3-4-3 shape as Germany, but are no identikit? Without Christian Eriksen, a central midfield of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Thomas Delaney asks different questions to those posed by Toni Kroos.
Left wing-back is again a big threat but as a right-footer, Denmark’s Joakim Maehle is more like Italy’s Leonardo Spinazzola, one of the players of the tournament now sadly injured, than Robin Gosens, who Trippier subdued.
Southgate even highlighted the faults of his 3-4-3 last week, highlighting the problems Timo Werner and Kai Havertz caused by dropping into the gaps either side of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips. But then he also pointed to the team’s slow start against Germany and poor attacking set pieces, and both of those were impressively put right against Andriy Shevchenko’s hapless side.
Former Middlesbrough striker Martin Braithwaite will be one of the wide players this evening.
England played 3-4-3 against Denmark twice last season, drawing 0-0 in Copenhagen, losing at Wembley, although that was ripped up by a red card for Harry Maguire half-an-hour into the second meeting.
It was, however, a Denmark with Eriksen, and played 4-3-3.
What Southgate has in his favour is flexibility. He can easily pick a team that can play either 4-3-3 or 3-4-3, and should be able to switch between them at will. Many is the time Phillips has dropped between the Leeds United centre-backs to change a back four into a three. Rice is perfectly happy in central defence.
Henderson has had matches as an emergency Liverpool centre-back.
Kyle Walker has played right-back and right centre-back in this tournament and although it would be a surprise if Reece James were to play, he showed late last season with Chelsea he can do both jobs too. And Southgate is not averse to a surprise.
Saka is so versatile he can play as a wing-back on either side as easily as he can higher up. Mount can play central midfield, further forward, or on the wing.
Phil Foden can do a good job in pretty much any position he can attack from.
For a team that is supposed to be boring, England are extremely hard to second-guess.