The idea of Gareth Southgate being unable to resist the lure of the back three, and the comforting extra layer of security it offers the inherently pragmatic manager, has long been a source of concern for those willing England’s manager to throw caution to the wind at Euro 2020.
These are awkward times for Southgate, who is increasingly seen as a right-back obsessive who lacks the imagination to turn his side into a thrilling attacking force. The image has been building for some months and it will be even harder to shake if England line up with a back three against Croatia at Wembley on 13 June.
Yet reality is about to intervene with all the force of a surprise forearm smash from Tyrone Mings. The warning signs were obvious during England’s fraught 1-0 victory over Austria on Wednesday, even though they were without a host of key players. It was too easy for Austria to create chances and the worry for Southgate is that he does not have the defenders to play a back four if Harry Maguire does not recover from a damaged ankle to face Croatia.
It looks unlikely. Maguire has only just resumed running and it is possible the Manchester United centre-back will sit out the entire group stage. The clock is ticking and if the 28-year-old is unable to partner John Stones against Croatia, it is hard to imagine Southgate feeling comfortable replacing him with Mings or Conor Coady.
Something will have to give. Mings and Coady did not convince as a partnership against Austria – the former was lucky to escape punishment for an off-the-ball foul on Sasa Kalajdzic – and the likelihood is that Southgate will want to lean on Kyle Walker’s recovery pace as a right-sided centre-back.
The problem, however, is that there will be consequences further up the pitch. The appeal of 4-3-3 is that it allows Southgate to be more adventurous. He can play his deep-lying double pivot in midfield – Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson if the latter is fit – and still have room in the team for four attack-minded players.
Yet someone will have to miss out if England switch to 3-4-3. Assuming that Raheem Sterling is not going to play as a left wing-back, it leaves Southgate with a difficult choice about which two players will be best suited to start behind Harry Kane.
The smart money is on Mason Mount, who has had an outstanding season for Chelsea, playing in either formation. Yet the 22-year-old is probably not going to drop into a midfield two with Rice if England are without Maguire. Mount is likelier to be an inside forward if England play 3-4-3 and that means that Southgate is going to have space for one of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Sterling.
It gives Southgate a dilemma. The popular choice would be Mount joining Rice in central midfield, with Foden and Grealish as the inside forwards behind Kane. On paper that would seem to give England plenty of creativity and the ability to retain possession.
Yet there would be a lot of pressure on Ben Chilwell and Reece James to offer thrust from wing-back. In that scenario the worry is that Kane becomes an issue. The striker likes to drop deep and release runners with clever reverse passes, but Mount, Foden and Grealish are not known for bursting behind defences. The worry is that opponents will end up squeezing England and there is every chance that Southgate will veer towards Sterling, who is out of form, or Rashford, who is nursing various aches and strains.
It starts to feel muddled at that point and the other concern is England would be very open in midfield. They do not look strong enough to leave Rice to do the dirty work on his own and although Jude Bellingham had another encouraging game against Austria, there were moments when the 17-year-old’s positioning off the ball felt like a weakness that could be exploited by strong opponents.
It is why Southgate wants to use Henderson, even though the midfielder has not played since 20 February because of a groin injury. Henderson’s absence against Austria was a blow and Southgate will hope that the Liverpool captain is able to play some part against Romania on Sunday, especially as Kalvin Phillips has been nursing a shoulder injury.
Given those issues, it is no surprise that Southgate believes England’s preparations are more complicated than any other nation’s. He has lost Trent Alexander-Arnold to injury and will not have a chance to play his strongest team before facing Croatia. His Manchester United players were missing against Austria, and the Chelsea and Manchester City contingent will not play on Sunday.
It is not ideal and none of this really suggests that England should be gung-ho. One of the misconceptions around this team is that they will play better football if Southgate crams as many attacking players into his team as possible. It ignores the reality that tournament football, often tight and reactive, tends to favour the more pragmatic sides.
England need to be balanced. The back three does not have to be seen as an unnecessary evil. It could give this slightly wounded side more stability if Maguire is out and it may even be England’s best bet if Southgate can find the right blend up front.