Back in 2018 Gareth Southgate led England to the semi-finals of the World Cup. He did so using a three at the back system that exploited the strengths of Kieran Tripper and Ashley Young by deploying them as wing-backs. The pair were two of England’s outstanding performers in the tournament. Yet since then we have barely seen the Three Lions boss use the system with a more traditional (for the England National Team) four at the back setup throughout the European Championships and Nations League. It could be that Southgate didn’t feel he had enough reliable centre backs to continue, or that Trippier and Young simply lost form, but we haven’t seen it since that night against Croatia. But could that be about to change thanks to the most unlikely of sources?
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have inadvertently provided Southgate with a solution to get back to his seemingly preferred formation. The Red Devils boss has, at times, used a back three as well as a back four this season but whichever way he sets up all but one of his defenders are English and this could be the answer.
Luke Shaw was England’s starting left-back in the 2014 World Cup but injury and poor form saw him slip down the pecking order and out of the international reckoning. But a recent resurgence has seen him establish himself not just as United’s first-choice left back but, more recently as ball-playing left-sided centre-back in the Old Trafford side’s new formation. It it these two factors that may hold the answer for Southgate.
Firstly, a three at the back formation offers Southgate the means to extract the best from one of this season’s standout performers, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. Alexander-Arnold is arguably the best attacking right-back in world football but often looks suspect defensively. Using him in a wing-back in this set-up should allow the England boss to make best use of Alexander-Arnold’s considerable attacking talents and offer cover on that side, either through Kyle Walker or by using arguably the best one-on-one defender in the Premier League, Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Wan-Bissaka offers a second reason why Southgate could revert to a back three. Using him in this position allows the England boss to create a defence made up from players from the same club, in this case, Manchester United. The understanding the trio will have developed from playing together on a weekly basis is something that can help build a solid foundation and offer the cover on the flanks to allow both Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell, on the other flank, to make best use of their attacking attributes. It could be argued that Wan-Bissaka has never played that role, but neither had Kyle Walker at the last World Cup.
In this set-up Southgate also has the option to use Shaw as the left wing-back and use John Stones, Fikayo Tomori or Tyrone Mings at centre-back or use Ben Chilwell, Danny Rose, Ashley Young or, if he was feeling brave, Brandon Williams as the wing-back.
So, whether he intended to or not, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could have found Gareth Southgate his route back to back three.