Back-three vs back-four

England’s round-of-16 match against Germany may still be five days away, but that hasn’t stopped it being the dominant talking point across the English media already this week.
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And some of the more intriguing chat has been about how Gareth Southgate will set his team up for the match.
The England coach has come under severe criticism for a bit of a drab run through the group stage. And admittedly it has been drab to watch at times.
But there is also an element of ‘you can only play 11 players’. You can’t play Harry Kane AND Jack Grealish, AND Phil Foden, AND Mason Mount, AND Jadon Sancho, AND Raheem Sterling, AND Bukayo Saka, and that’s without even mentioning Marcus Rashford or Jude Bellingham.
England might have an abundance of attacking talent, but you have to put that talent into a system that works. Surely we know this by now, especially after all of the Sven-era disappointment and wondering why playing solely attacking midfielders saw England so weirdly vulnerable at the back.
Southgate, for better or for worse, has settled on pragmatism to get England into the latter stages of international tournaments.
And those upset by that better look away now, because there’s a very real chance that he could leave yet another of those attacking talents on the bench for the game against Germany.

Southgate has big headache - he didn't expect Saka and Grealish to be so good!

Gary Neville is one of many to suggest that Southgate will, and probably should, switch to a five at the back to mirror Germany’s system and, in theory, do more to negate their strengths.
Neville’s assertion has been met with the expected outrage, with Jack Wilshere leading the criticism, saying:
No Grealish or Foden?! England’s most talented/creative… at least one has to play! Probably Grealish.
Is that frustration understandable? Yes. Is the clamour for Grealish on merit? Also yes. Are we better off with Southgate in charge than Wilshere? Certainly.
It would take a brave coach to go even more defensive against Germany in the face of such public criticism. It's probably the right thing to do, but if England lose then Southgate will get absolute pelters.

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A bitter rivalry? Sort of, but not really

The crunch England-Germany fixture is the penultimate match of the stage, with six games to come before that – including Wales’ latest foray into knockout football and a meeting of the defending champions against the No. 1 ranked side in the world.
But the prospect of England vs Germany does funny things to people.
Any build-up to a game against Germany takes a familiar path: penalties come up, then Gazza, then something problematic about the war, then a German pundit mentions that really it’s not a rivalry for them, and rinse and repeat.
But let’s sidestep the nationalistic nonsense and focus on the on-pitch rivalry for a second.
For of course it’s a fixture that means more to England. History itself dictates that.

FOOTBALL Chris Waddle in consoled by Lothar Matthaeus after missing his penalty in the 1990 World Cup semi-final shoot-out

Image credit: PA Photos

In the lifetime of England’s oldest current player, Jordan Henderson (31), Germany have won a European Championship in 1996 and two World Cups – in 1990 and 2014.
Any defeats to England in that time would inevitably lose a bit of significance under the weight of all that winning.
But for England, prior to that feel-good run to the semi-finals in Russia three years ago, both of the country’s previous best tournament runs ended in penalty shootout losses to Germany. That sort of pain is going to stick. It says a lot about the English psyche, though, that many struggle to grasp that the feeling isn’t mutual.

An unwelcome but dramatic trend

There had been nine own goals in the history of European Championship football prior to the start of this tournament. That’s nine in 15 iterations of the competition, dating right back to 1960.
But Euro 2020 is in very serious danger of doubling that tally.

Merih Demiral, Turchia-Italia, Euro 2020, Getty Images

Image credit: Getty Images

So far, starting with Merih Demiral turning into his own net in the tournament-opener between Turkey and Italy, there have been EIGHT own goals in this tournament alone.
That’s an unprecedented rate.
It’s already double the previous highest tally of own goals at a Euros. And the stats keep on coming.
We’ve had the fastest own goal in a Euros match, with Wojciech Szczesny the unfortunate party against Slovakia in Group E after 18 minutes – which was also the first own goal by a goalkeeper at a Euros.
We’ve had the fastest own goal by an outfield player at a Euros – Mats Hummels against France after 20 minutes.
And we’ve had more than a single own goal scored in a Euros match for the very first time, when Portugal slumped to a 4-2 loss to Germany. And it happened again just two days later in Slovakia’s defeat to Spain, where Martin Dubravka turned in probably the worst of the lot.


Let’s also spare a thought for poor old Robert Lewandowski.
He may have scored two goals in Poland’s final group game, but it is his extraordinary double miss that will live longest in the memory.
And the 3-2 result that followed means a player who has been probably the best striker in the world over the last decade has made it out of a major tournament group stage just once.
Forget Lewan-goal-ski. It should be Lewan-dole-ski! Amirite? Get it…? Robert Lewan-dole-ski.


I don’t know if anyone has mentioned it yet, but England’s manager actually missed a penalty in 1996 against the team he’s up against next week.
Doesn’t feel like that sort of thing should slip through the net in the build-up.
And while we’re on the subject, take a trip down memory lane with this absolute classic of the football-banter-advert genre, one of the few positives to come out of his famous shootout failure.


I think England have got to be tactically flexible. You look at Germany’s biggest asset as it stands, it probably shouldn't be but it is their width. That’s how they cashed in against Portugal, and I just wonder if England are a little bit vulnerable there, almost as narrow as Portugal, certainly when they play with four at the back, so maybe there will be a bit of a rethink there. Also, if England do play with wing-backs it maybe gives them a better chance to get around the back of Germany as well, so maybe that’s something that could be looked at.
Andy Brassell was in fascinating form when looking at how England should approach their round-of-16 game.
The pundit and European football expert was speaking to host Dotun Adebayo and guest David Cartilidge on the excellent podcast On The Continent, and went into further detail about Southgate’s attack vs defence dilemma.
England have looked very, very secure so far, but it’s about taking the jeopardy out of it. I do think England as it stands are a better side than Germany, but getting the result is something different, and they have to look at how they are going to do that. Grinding out results is something they’ve done very well so far, but something you have to ask yourself as Gareth Southgate is whether continuing to play chanceless football, not conceding any chances, is that dicing with defeat a little bit? I’m a firm believer that boring, containing football wins tournaments. But to take England seriously as a candidate for this, you need to know that they can change it up and be a bit more clinical in the final third when they have to be.
You can listen to that episode here.


A rest day! again!
The sport scheduling gods have not come up trumps today. There’s yet another rest day at Euro 2020 before the knockout stages, and there’s not even much in the way of other sport to make up for football’s absence.
But don’t sweat, it’s all going off tomorrow, with the first pair of round-of-16 games, the opening match of the British & Irish Lions’ tour, and the little matter of the start of a cycle race around France. So take advantage of that evening off, because it’s going to be a busy weekend!
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