It was a great summer to be English. For the first time in a generation, the nation had a team it could be proud of; a group of affable, accessible and unassuming young men led by a self-deprecating, studious and congenial manager.
Before they travelled to Russia, few believed they would go far. But with a combination of hard work, meticulous preparation and a little bit of luck, the Three Lions reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 28 years. The achievement was celebrated wildly, and rightly so.
But now the time has come to fall back to earth and, more importantly, plan for Euro 2020 and the next World Cup in Qatar. If Gareth Southgate and his boys can look back objectively on their summer of giddy joy and elation, there are lessons to be learned, especially in terms of tactical flexibility.
First, the facts. England played seven games at FIFA’s flagship event, of which they won three, drew one and lost three. Of the sides they beat in 90 minutes, none were ranked in the world top-20 going into the tournament.
Against the two better teams they faced, Belgium twice and Croatia, the Three Lions struggled to impose themselves. They were overrun in the middle of midfield and at times struggled to hold onto the ball.
To say this is not to diminish the achievements of Southgate’s boys, merely to highlight where they can improve going forward.
This issue was particularly clear in the semi-final against Croatia, when, after an ebullient, energetic start from England, the tie settled into a pattern of Croatian possession, with their central trio of Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric dominating the ball and controlling the flow of the game.
Many pointed the finger at England’s lack of a passing central midfielder in the mould of a Modric, Xavi or Toni Kroos as the root of the matter. But geniuses like that only come about once in three generations. Surely there is something Southgate can do to correct this deficiency that is more proactive than merely standing around waiting for a superstar to emerge.
That something, perhaps, could be a change to the system. In Russia Southgate employed what he referred to as a 3-3-2-2 formation, which meant playing with only one conventional central midfielder; Jordan Henderson.
The other two midfield roles were filled by players – Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard – who at club level are out-and-out number 10s, at times leaving the Liverpool captain isolated and swamped by the opposition.
Alli and Lingard were willing runners and showed unwavering commitment to Southgate’s idea of play. Increasingly, however, it seemed as if the double demand – defending deep when out of possession and being responsible for creating chances and providing width when England had the ball – was too much to handle.
No other England player covered more ground than the attacking midfield duo in Russia, with Lingard alone getting through a mind-bending 15.4km of work in the 120 minutes against Colombia. The onus on the pair to get back also meant that they lost a little of their usual composure when they got into attacking positions, a feature that became more pronounced as games reached the final half hour.
With a new crop of talent coming into the squad – Jadon Sancho, James Maddison and Mason Mount have all been given their first call-ups for the upcoming Nations League matches against Croatia and Spain – Southgate now has options at his disposal, both in terms of tactics and personnel.
The two games, against the team that dumped England out of the World Cup and one of the world’s most dominant midfields, will be indicative of how Southgate’s young Lions are progressing. And if they want to gain a firmer foothold in the centre of the park, he could do one of two things.
Firstly, if England’s waistcoat-sporting manager wishes to maintain the three-man backline that served him so well in the summer, he could switch from the 3-3-2-2 used in Russia to a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1.
It would mean sacrificing at least one of Alli or Lingard in favour of a deeper-lying midfielder like Harry Winks or Nathaniel Chalobah – both of whom make their returns to the England set up – but would provide another outlet from the base of midfield and more natural cover for the defence.
In this scenario he could stick with either Alli or Lingard in behind a front two of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane, or deploy Marcus Rashford, Sterling and Kane as a mobile attacking trio, providing more natural width up top.
This system would also seem to suit an emerging talent like Mount, a lithe passing midfielder who has been excellent on loan at Derby this year, and Sancho, the scintillating winger lighting up the Budesliga with Borussia Dortmund. As they develop, they could come into the roles that in the short term would most likely be filled by Winks and Sterling.
Secondly, Southgate could scrap the three-at-the-back system altogether in favour of a Manchester City-style 4-3-3. This would perhaps leave the goalkeeper a little more exposed but would have the advantage of not requiring so much work from the two number 10s.
In this case, different personnel could be fielded against adversaries of different calibres. Against Spain, for example, a midfield trio of Henderson, Winks and someone like Mount or Ross Barkley could provide more stability and passing ability.
Against weaker opposition, Henderson, Alli and Lingard could provide the creativity and imagination to supply a front three of Rashford, Sterling and Kane.
Flexibility here is the key. If England want to compete with the best, and it seems they will have the individual quality to do so in the coming years, they have to be able to adapt to the questions posed by different teams.
The next few games in the Nations League will provide the perfect chance for Gareth Southgate to add another dimension to this exciting young squad.