England's faltering attack at Euro 2024: Can a change of system rescue the Three Lions against Switzerland?

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In the quarterfinals of Euro 2024, England are just where they want to be. Their every game inspires a profound sense of dread in the continent. The English are coming. May god have mercy on us all.

Slight problem: Europe is not convulsed by the fear of three rampaging lions, carving a path through the German landscape, tearing to pieces anything in their path. Rather more, they are gripped by the looming sense of inescapable boredom on the horizon. The prospect of watching England is rather like middle management dragging you into a meeting to discuss the crucial change to our printer supplier and what it’s going to mean for your day-to-day routine. They say it’s going to take 90 minutes, but I know Gareth, it’s going to drag on longer than that. Couldn’t this have been an email?

England vs. a cautious, solidly effective Switzerland. It hardly screams Saturday night fun times does it?

Viewing information

  • Date: Saturday, July 6 | Time: 12 p.m. ET
  • Location: Dusseldorf Arena – Dusseldorf, Germany
  • Watch: Fox | Live stream: Fubo (try for free)
  • Odds: England +125; Draw +190; Switzerland +290

Possible England XI: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Konsa; Alexander-Arnold, Rice, Mainoo, Saka; Foden, Bellingham; Kane  

What is all the crueler for those contractually bound to watch the England football team is the real sense coming into the tournament that it didn’t have to be this way. Yes Gareth Southgate had a reputation for tactical temperance, but there had been flashes of more progressive style at the 2022 World Cup. Since then, a promising crop of attacking talent has flourished into the envy of so many neighbors.

Backed up by a varied bench — the burst of Anthony Gordon, Ivan Toney’s aerial excellence, Cole Palmer’s cold-blooded streak — England were deploying the players of the season in England, Germany and Spain. The least garlanded member of the front four was still the reigning young player of the year, and twice voted his national team’s player of the season. Few of Southgate’s rivals would not have swapped out their frontline for Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane before a ball had been kicked.

Perhaps they would not rush to do so now. After all, England went more than four and a half hours of football without finding the net before Bellingham saved their bacon against Slovakia, the latest in a field of frankly midranking opponents that a presumed contender for the crown ought to brush aside at least once or twice. That is what they have done in tournaments gone by against the likes of Ukraine and Senegal.

It is not as if it is off color finishing that is making it hard for England. They aren’t even getting in positions to miss the chances they create. Their average of 10.5 shots per 90 minutes — nearly half of Spain’s — ranks them 19th among Euro 2024’s 24 teams. Their expected goals (xG) are similarly lowly, at 0.86, more comparable with Albania and Scotland than the teams they aspire to compete with over the next week. To put it in Premier League context: last season Sheffield United were dead last in the Premier League for xG per game. They averaged 1.03. England are not taking a lot of shots and those that they do take aren’t all that good anyway.

Saka, Bellingham and Foden have combined for about an expected goal between them. The latter in particular seems insistent on shooting himself out of a slump from range. Among those players who have taken more than six shots at this tournament only Arda Guler has a higher average distance from goal than Foden and the Real Madrid man has one impudent and near glorious shot over an out of position goalkeeper to swell his numbers.

Nothing quite seems to fit. England’s front four looks fearsome on paper, but most, if not all, of them want to come to the ball. When this team get away in behind and attack a cut back into the box they can be devastating — see Saka’s run in behind to tee up Bellingham for the winner against Serbia — but it is not their first inclination.

Rather than put a tactical straitjacket on his stars, there seems to have been a desire from Southgate to liberate the likes of Bellingham and Foden, who at Manchester City would soon find himself free to pick his place on the bench if he ventured outside the system set in place for him by Pep Guardiola. Saka is not quite the same without a playmaker near him to bounce off but England’s number 10 is rotating on the left flank with Foden. Meanwhile a right-footed left back has a tendency to maneuver infield at the same time that Kane is dropping deep too. The spacing is all wrong.

For most England supporters, the problem seems to be obvious. Southgate’s greatest work was never as a tactician, but as a leader, someone who could address the toxic culture that had developed around a squad that dreaded international duty. Perhaps the greatest fear is that the sludge his management had swept away has returned, now that this team are favorites rather than plucky underdogs or an up-and-coming force. Certainly, the manager’s inability or refusal to change things up as the Slovakia match progressed drew indignation back home.

Foden, however, would counsel that it is not on the manager.  “The players have got to take some of the blame,” he said this week. “There has to be some leaders to get together and find out a solution to why it is not working. There is only so much the manager can do. He sets you up in a system and tells you how to press. If it is not going like that, you have to [work it out].

“I feel sorry for Gareth. In training, he has been telling us to press and be high up on the pitch, and I feel like sometimes, it has to come from the players. We have to be leaders. In games we could have got together a little bit more and worked out a solution.”

The missing piece

Wherever fault may lie, what must be infuriating for Southgate is that the quick fix is there with him in Blankenhain. If only Luke Shaw were fit enough to aid the cause. In each of the last two major tournaments, the Manchester United left back was England’s ball progression plan. At Euro 2020 he was second only to Kyle Walker for progressive passes and third for progressive carries. Come the 2022 World Cup, he led England in both metrics. Indeed, when it came to progressive passing his per 90 average placed him in the exalted company of Lionel Messi, Bruno Fernandes and Granit Xhaka.

Shaw might not quite have the burst of his youth, but he was more than sprightly enough to get up the pitch and hold down his flank, ensuring that the opposition were stretched wide even when Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford or Foden drifted infield. Given the left back’s importance to England, it is totally understandable that Southgate was prepared to gamble he would overcome a hamstring injury in time to feature more prominently in a tournament where he is yet to play a minute. What is altogether harder to countenance is not taking a single natural left back beside him in a squad of 26. England aren’t blessed with the same quality as on the opposite flank — the English kingdom to get Antonee Robinson back from the United States men’s national team — but Tyrick Mitchell ended the season in fine form with Crystal Palace.

Without Shaw or any other natural left back, England have turned their most effective position into something of a muddle. Right-footed natural right back Kieran Trippier is offering progressive passing — many of them clipped passes down the line that force someone to actually take up a left wing berth — but he cannot be the same ball carrying threat as his predecessor. Per Wyscout, Trippier has made just two progressive runs at Euro 2024 so far. Both saw him advance the ball a little over 10 yards before dropping the ball infield.

It is inevitable that when Trippier collects the ball he usually does so with his body facing infield, the natural pass being a sideways one to the midfielders alongside him. He can certainly whip a ball in from that spot but how many of the 99 passes he attempted in the 0-0 draw with Slovenia really tested the defense. Only two moved England inside the penalty area.

Changes to come?

Hamstrung at left back, unable to get their front four to click, something has to change for England. It appears it will do. Southgate is expected to deploy a back three against Switzerland on Saturday, both matching Murat Yakin’s system and restoring the Three Lions to one in which they looked comfortable at Euro 2020. Shaw is training, but it appears more likely that Saka, thrust into a full back role as England chased parity in the round of 16, will be asked to step into a left wing back role. It hardly seems an optimal solution to reposition one of the best right sided forwards in the game, and Saka himself has said he does not see it as a fix, but he is a left footed player who has played left back in his career. That might have to do for England. The fact that he is his country’s leading ball progressor so far this tournament does also hint that he might be able to get the Three Lions going down what has been a barren flank for them so far.

Indeed, the back three might offer more answers too. Several crises ago, the spotlight shone harshly on Trent Alexander-Arnold, a right back who had not had time to learn how to be a true central midfielder. Put him at wing back with Kyle Walker on the right of a back three and England might get the Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool seasons gone by, stretching play from the outer reaches of the right flank, his devastating deliveries perfectly primed for Kane and Bellingham.

A switch of system doesn’t address every problem England have, maybe not even half of them. Who plugs the gap left by the excellent Marc Guehi, suspended due to yellow card accumulation? Is Kobbie Mainoo the man to partner Declan Rice? oodness knows England have taken a look at enough options? Will a repositioning address the fact that Foden has never really sparkled on the international stage?

Changing the system eight days out from what could be a third major final is an almighty gamble, perhaps the biggest of Southgate’s tenure. And yet by far the riskiest move he could have made would be to trust in the approach that got this team to the quarterfinal. If England are to be feared by the field, the status quo cannot endure.  

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