Another England win, another tactical masterclass from Gareth Southgate.
Until Euro 2021, Southgate was not considered a great strategist, his rigid formations and late substitutions caused disappointment by English fans accustomed to the hyper-fluidity of club play.
But a keen eye for detail, reactive settings, and flawless timing have clearly developed on the job, with The 2-1 win over Denmark in the semi-finals is just the latest example of Southgate getting all the big decisions right.
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His 4-2-3-1 helped hold the opponent down for long periods; Jack Grealish’s replacement capitalized on Denmark’s tired legs and then the switch to 3-4-3 to cope with Kasper Hjulmand’s move to 4-2-4 ended the game.
It has taken Southgate a long time to win over the skeptics, to gain the trust of those who wanted England to unleash their dazzling array of offensive talent, but surely there are no more disbelievers.
At Southgate we are confident, and before the Euro Cup final against Italy, the biggest tactical test of the England tournament, there is a belief that he will hit the big decisions. And there are some important calls.
Formation first, and Southgate is likely to stick with 4-2-3-1; Italy’s strength in the midfield he needs a third central midfielder, so 3-4-3 is an unlikely choice.
Southgate will likely pick the same starting eleven as well, largely because Bukayo Saka’s defensive work gives England the best of both worlds. Saka can operate as a winger, and with Kyle Walker for the most part staying deep to form a back three while England are in possession, Southgate’s lineup ranges effortlessly from 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2.
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Italy is also expected to stick with a 4-3-3 and the same line-up used in the penalty shootout win over Spain.
Building on that, here’s a look at where the final will be won and lost:
England’s focus on attacking on the wings
A theme of England’s game has developed throughout the knockout phase, as Southgate’s team constantly attack from the flanks; only 23 percent of his attacks are channeled through the middle, the fifth lowest at Euro 2021.
Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice are not strong passers who break the line, which means Mason Mount has a difficult time catching the ball as England arches their passes to the flanks.
But it’s also deliberate, given how often Raheem Serling and Saka dribble directly at opposing defenders.
As a consequence, England are developing an archetypal goal of driving to the baseline and cutting the ball, hence all 10 of their goals have been scored within 12 yards of the goal.
This is the most likely source of England’s goal against Italy, found at 3-2-5 when in possession when right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo becomes part of a defensive three and Emerson advances from the left-back. .
Emerson is considerably weaker in attack and defense than the injured Leonardo Spinazzola and this is where England can find joy. Behind the Chelsea man, Saka’s driving races can wreak havoc.
But Sterling, with Luke Shaw overlapping, remains England’s favorite attacking form and could prove very productive in the transition considering Italy is likely to dominate possession for long periods.
What’s more, the now-familiar switch from Saka to Grealish, with Sterling moving to the right, will put Emerson under even more pressure in the end.
Italy’s midfield dominance and Jorginho’s dilemma
England’s biggest concern is the graceful passing from Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella, who are much more comfortable on the ball than Rice or Phillips.
The Southgate side will need to be prepared to sit for long periods. His most likely defensive plan is another replay of the Denmark game.
England’s press was a bit unusual on Wednesday, as Sterling and Saka pressed midfield, leaving Denmark to play an easy ball from the back to the wings.
England happily conceded this territory, confident in their ability to prevent the wings from creating crossover situations and blocking center options for Mikkel Damsgaard and Martin Braithwaite.
On Sunday, this tactic should prevent Italy’s dominance in center field from taking England out of shape, and against Southgate’s conservative defensive line there won’t be many chances for Ciro Immobile to go over the top.
Much, then, will depend on whether Emerson and Federico Chiesa face off one on one with the English defenders.
Another area of concern for England is how to control Jorginho, given that Rice and Phillips will be concerned about the advancement of Verratti and Barella.
Mount, who operates as the No. 10, must work hard to land on Jorginho and prevent him from spending too much time on the ball.
Counterattacks, set pieces and substitutions
That will be the heart of the game, but Sunday’s final could easily be won or lost in the moments of transition and the resulting set pieces.
Italy’s counterattacks weren’t particularly good against Spain and yet after a period of pressure from England there is a chance that Chiesa could find joy behind Shaw, especially given that Harry Maguire is on that side. It can be caught by fast and straightforward counters.
England and Italy rank in the top three for set pieces, accounting for 23 percent of their combined total, and whether from counterattacks or not, free kicks and corner kicks could solve a tight, edgy and nervous game. balanced at Wembley.
Harry Kane and Maguire are worth keeping an eye on against those colossal Italian center-backs at both ends of the field. But as with every tactical breakthrough throughout Euro 2021, the key battle formation, lineup and discussion could become irrelevant as substitutions fill the field in the second half.
Interestingly, Roberto Mancini’s five changes against Spain seemed to interrupt Italy’s pace (he only had one shot in the remaining 35 minutes after the fifth substitute) as Denmark did in the other semi-final.
And that’s where Southgate’s audacity in holding onto his system rigidly, once considered a frightening and frozen trait, comes in handy again.
He makes fewer substitutes, keeping England flowing, and can once again give his team the advantage.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.