EURO 2016: Is it time for a 3-5-2 England?

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Before we start let’s get a quick synopsis of the magnum opus that was, England’s ‘blistering’ campaign in EURO 2016:

‘I haven’t had anything to do in the whole tournament to be honest.’ – Joe Hart

‘Can’t wait to do the f**king highlights show!’ – Gary Lineker

‘I-I-I can’t, just can’t stop thinking about the film Space Jam, like the monsters…nick their talent or something’ – Ian Wright

‘Joe Hart has definitely been sitting on his left hand so it feels like someone else is conceding all those goals’ – Pete Donaldson

‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here’ – Roy Hodgson

‘We’ve been knocked out of Europe twice in one week’ – Everyone

I think that speaks volumes of how England panned out in this year’s European championship; here’re just a few reasons why. In Hodgson’s system, the 3 in midfield is often outnumbered. Teams favouring a 4-2-3-1 (Russia), 3-5-2 (Wales) or 4-5-1 (Slovakia) have a 3 v 5 situation in the middle of the park. It certainly doesn’t help when your players lose the ability to kick a football post the hour mark. Having only 1 striker leaves 1 v 2 for Kane/Vardy unless your wingers can support. Lallana plays a false 9 which can be effective but isn’t ideal unless your Spain. Sterling burns out after half an hour, paired with a void of imagination on the ball. Who’s bright idea was it to give Harry Kane the set-pieces?

So clearly there’s a lot to fix, and I believe the 3-5-2 is as close to a solution as we can get.

The players in the team will be based on the 23 man squad Hodgson took to France.

Goalkeepers: Fraser Forster / Joe Hart / Tom Heaton

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Joe Hart needs to go. Starting at Man City is the only notable reason why he starts ahead of his counterpart Fraser Forster. Despite Hart coming 1 clean sheet short of receiving the golden glove, his clean sheet ratio was 43%. Compare that to Forster’s 50%, also making more saves per goal. These figures can be swayed by game time and defending styles, or in this case Man City’s lack thereof.

The % of shots on goal leading to goals gives a better picture of goalkeeping ability. Forster has 25% of shots on goal leading to a goal, for Hart that figure increases to 34%, which starts to explain situations like Gareth Bale’s free kick and his lack of wrist muscles. Jack Butland, who missed the Euro’s due to injury, has a reasonable 27%. He would start over Forster for me despite the extra 2%, as he’s had more than double the number of shots at his goal. When comparing to the elite, Neuer concedes only 20% of shots on goal, while Buffon is on 19%, Jan Oblak edges over both with a remarkable 18%.

Central Defenders: Gary Cahill / Chris Smalling / John Stones

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Besides playing intensely boring football, one of the most frustrating parts of watching England play is how any team, be it Germany or Iceland, are able to cut through the defence given the slightest chance. Even though our players aren’t awful, the backline has the structural integrity similar to that of a slightly soggy McVitie’s.

One of the biggest advantages of playing a 3-5-2 is when attacking, you have an extra defender for insurance. Smalling goes in the middle of the back 3 acting as the sweeper. Ideally, you’d want the faster more physical defenders on the left and right, but I’m not exactly spoilt for choice. Out of the 3 central defenders, he’s the only one to have any experience in the 3-5-2 with Louis Van Gaal, also completing the more tackles per game (2.9) in the PL than Stones and Cahill. Rule of thumb is that you’d have a left footed defender on the left and right-footed on the right, for easier distribution to your wing back. With both Stones and Cahill being right footers, Stones is pushed to LCB. This is mainly because of his ability on the ball and composure, completing 1365 passes in the season, so it’s easier to accommodate Cahill.

When attacking, Stones and Cahill push up slightly higher, with Smalling organising his backline. This would create more passing angles to play it out from the back or long diagonals to the opposite full backs.

When defending you would have wings back tucking in, creating a compact back five, difficult to break down.

Central Midfield:  Dele Alli / Ross Barkley / Eric Dier / Jordan Henderson / Adam Lallana / James Milner / Wayne Rooney / Jack Wilsere

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In this section, I will only cover the central midfielders in which Dier and Rooney are the two CDM’s and Alli plays the advanced role.

Addressing the main point of discussion first, can Rooney transition successfully into that Gerrard/Scholes/Lampard role? The exemplary performances in the FA cup, such as the goal line clearance against Everton and his bullish run through Crystal Palace in the final, point to progression for the England captain. We all know Rooney for his endless work-rate, coming 13th for average distance covered per game (11.018km) during the 2014/15 season. There are players such as Milner who exceeds Rooney work rate, covering 12.29km per game in the past season. On top of this Rooney’s work-rate drops significantly due to playing as a lone striker for a stretch and injuries. In terms of passing, Rooney this season has a stronger 83.1% pass success rate while Milner has 77.4%. Rooney’s ability to execute that ‘hollywood ball’, strength, tenacity and being a proven striker of the ball are the main reasons he sits next to Dier and Milner doesn’t.

Out of the defensive pairing, you have one box to box midfielder to support the attack during an offensive play and the other to cover the defence. Dier is the outstanding option to shield the backline.

Ranked 8th for most passes completed (1680) in the PL and completing the most interceptions (80), blocks (33) and tackles (129) out of the English central midfielders says it all. Dier’s Tottenham teammate and BFF Dele Alli would play CAM. His 10 goals and 9 assists last season made him the most potent English CAM’s in the premier league.

I should mention before we move on that if Mark Noble was in the 23 man squad he would without a doubt take Rooney’s spot in CDM. The West Ham captain covered the most distance of any player least season with 271km covered. That’s the same as running the London marathon 6 and a half times over; playing the N’Golo Kante role for England.

Wing Backs: Ryan Bertrand / Nathaniel Clyne / Danny Rose / Kyle Walker

The Premier League’s distinct brand of high intensity and physicality acts as a crucible for faster, stronger and more attacking fullbacks. England’s fullback options are perfect for the demanding roles for wide men that come with a 3-5-2, having the fastest fullbacks around. The excellent pace is the bare minimum; a firm grasp of defending and attacking skill, as well as a hardened physical and mental endurance is required to be a successful wing-back. Without effective wing-backs, the 3-5-2 won’t function as a formation.

Looking at the 4 wing-backs available, they’re interchangeable as for who starts. All have the ability and physicality required to make a successful wing-back. Rose and Walker were picked simply because they both play for Tottenham and have experience playing together, important so when one bombs forward the other stays back. Even still the roles are interchangeable and will require frequent rotation for the recovery needed after a match.

Strikers: Harry Kane / Marcus Rashford / Wayne Rooney / Daniel Sturridge / Jamie Vardy 

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Oh God no please not Harry Kane, and I get it. Kane has been the most disappointing of all the England players this tournament (actually I take that back, Hart was, but the less said about him the better). Not just that he took the set pieces, but that a grand total of 0 shots went remotely near the goal. On the ball, he was lethargic and failed to score. Off the ball, the pace and movement we saw at Tottenham seem a distant memory. But as explained before, the 4-3-3 without good wingers leaves the striker isolated, giving teams to just mark out the CAM, so through balls and aimless crosses are his only chance of scoring. He has been woeful don’t get me wrong, but with a strike partner, we could see a completely different man.

The perfect complement to a big hold up striker is a fast agile one, and Vardy is as good as they get. It’s a joke that he didn’t start a single match, making a big difference when he came on against Wales. Vardy lead Leicester City to their first ever top division title, contributing 24 goals and 6 assists. In addition, he’s used to playing with a big strike partner, starting with Ulloa multiple times. With 49 goals between them, the combined quality would give any defence trouble.

Starting 11 (23 Man Squad)

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Having 2 strikers and defensive insurance makes the 3-5-2 an unbeatable formation. Look at Italy who exceeded expectations by outplaying Belgium, comfortably securing first place in their group, only losing to Germany on penalties, surprise surprise. But this brings up another point.

There’s a reason that you rarely see the 3-5-2 played at the highest level.

The 3-5-2 is a very structured formation and requires a high level of discipline in order to balance the free movement of players without losing the shape of the formation. In other formations such as the 4-3-3, it’s ok for the wingers to free roam at times. With a 3-5-2 the shape is what makes it dangerous in attack and solid defensively. The defenders especially need an experienced understanding of positioning as a unit, individually and in respect to the midfield. If your players aren’t trained properly then it falls apart (Aston Villa) or everyone sticks to their position and people stop making runs (Man Utd).

As for the 3-5-2 England ever making an appearance, that hangs on the manager. If England appoints Jurgen Klinsmann as some suggest, that appearance may be sooner rather than later, experimenting with the 3-5-2 himself with the USA squad. If it ends up in big Sam’s hands or dare I even mention Pardew; it’s all hands on deck.

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