GARETH SOUTHGATE has openly admitted that his decision to play with three centre-halves at last year’s World Cup finals was a means to an end. As thoughts begin to turn to next summer’s Euro 2020 finals, though, it is worth remembering what that end turned out to be.

England reached the semi-finals in Russia, their best World Cup performance for more than 30 years, with their defensive reliability a key factor in their progress through the knock-out rounds. They conceded from a stoppage-time set-piece against Colombia, kept a clean sheet against Sweden, and were only undone against Croatia because two moments of attacking magic resulted in them conceding two extremely well-worked goals over the course of 120 minutes.

Long regarded as England’s biggest weakness, the quality of Southgate side’s defending was their biggest strength in Russia. So, after this week’s outings against Bulgaria and Kosovo revealed alarming deficiencies when dealing with opposition attacks, it is time to reconsider the move away from a three-man defence with wing-backs to a flat back four. Against superior opposition, England will be embarrassed if they defend as they did on Tuesday night.

Southgate’s move to a four-man defence was driven, in the main, by a desire to get an extra creative player into midfield. England’s World Cup loss to Croatia was attributed to an inability to control the midfield area and the lack of a Luka Modric-type figure capable of threading intricate passes through a well-drilled defence. By ditching a centre-half, Southgate has been able to play with three deeper-lying midfielders behind a three-man attack. Given that England have scored 19 goals in their first four qualifiers – admittedly against limited opposition – it can be argued his tactical switch has made his side more potent in the final third.

Whether that remains the case when England take on better opponents remains to be seen, although to be fair to Southgate, last year’s 3-2 win in Spain, when his side also played with a flat back four, was an excellent exhibition of counter-attacking.

However, while England have looked great going forward in the last 12 months, with Raheem Sterling having developed into a truly world-class talent, their frailties at the opposite end of the pitch have become increasingly apparent.

Tuesday’s game certainly set the alarm bells ringing, and not just because there was a repeat of the individual defensive errors that proved so damaging against Holland in this summer’s Nations League semi-final. Anyone can make a mistake, although the frequency with which England’s centre-halves are getting themselves into trouble playing out from the back has to be a concern, but an international side with realistic aspirations of winning a major tournament in the next 12 months should not be as open or disorganised as Southgate’s side were three days ago. Especially when the opposition is a Kosovan team that, while undoubtedly spirited, is hardly part of the European elite.

Declan Rice proved incapable of preventing Valon Berisha from creating havoc whenever he dropped off England’s centre-halves, so goodness only knows how he would cope with a Modric, Frenkie de Jong or Eden Hazard. Rice remains in the early throes of his international career, but the evidence so far does not suggest he is the answer to England’s long-standing problems in the defensive-midfield role. He is the best bet at the minute, with Eric Dier’s form having slumped dramatically in the last year or so, Jordan Henderson’s qualities more suited to playing higher up the field and the emerging Sean Longstaff still completely unproven at international level.

He left his centre-halves exposed on a number of occasions on Tuesday though, and the combination of Harry Maguire and Michael Keane was unable to cope. Replace Keane with Joe Gomez and you probably have a better pairing - the same is arguably true of swapping Keane for John Stones, although the Manchester City defender’s lax concentration means he brings his own issues – but it would require a huge leap of faith to suggest that any two-man combination would enable England to deal with a side breaking in numbers into a vacant midfield area.

They coped reasonably well last summer, but that was when they had the security of an extra centre-half. That still remains the best way to shore up England’s defence, and with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Ben Chilwell and Danny Rose in the squad, Southgate boasts plenty of players who are completely at home playing as wing-backs rather than full-backs in a flat back four. Indeed, with Alexander-Arnold and Chilwell in particular, it could be argued the wing-back role plays more forcefully to their strengths.

With their three-man attack proving so effective, that would probably mean England playing in a 3-4-3 formation. That potentially leaves you short of numbers in central midfield, which appears to be Southgate’s main concern, but against genuinely top-class opposition, surely better that than being stretched in the defensive third?

Against the likes of Bulgaria and Kosovo, defensive weaknesses can be easily overcome. Against the sides England will have to be beating next summer if they want to be European champions, they will almost certainly result in defeat. Consequently, a return to a three-man defence has to at least be considered.


ONCE Joe Root’s side have completed the final Test of this Ashes series, the ECB will begin the search for a new England head coach, with the current incumbent, Trevor Bayliss, stepping down.

After the highs and lows of this summer, though, they should change their current way of thinking. Instead, of searching for one head coach, they should be looking to appoint two.

The demands of Test and limited-overs cricket are now so divergent that it no longer makes sense for the same person to be presiding over both forms of the game. The calendar is also so packed, with international cricket of some form or the other pretty much taking place the whole year round, that it is impossible for any one figure to devote the necessary amount of attention to either the Test or one-day game. Try to juggle both, and you end up having to prioritise one over the other, or else you excel at neither.

England should have a Test coach, responsible solely for the five-day game, and a one-day coach, responsible for One-Day Internationals and T20s. Clearly, they would have to work closely together, especially when it comes to managing the workload of players who are centrally-contracted in both forms of the game. But they would also be independent of each other, and therefore able to pursue their own priorities, even if they took them on a different course to their fellow head coach.

A Test coach would be able to use the window for one-day matches to develop a close relationship with the counties.  They could use their power and influence to reconfigure the status of the County Championship. A one-day coach could use the Test schedule to run tailored coaching sessions for those one-day specialists not playing the five-day game.

As the current Ashes series proves, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. It is time to acknowledge that England need specialists for the two distinct forms of the game.