World Cup 2018

Three and easy: How England’s defensive shift paid off

 • by Mark Thompson
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Imagine you travelled back in time to tell a past version of yourself, grimly hungover from the defeat against Iceland in 2016, how England’s defence would look at the 2018 World Cup.

“A back three?”, you would ask. This is a time before Antonio Conte brought it back into the mainstream. “Really?”

Yes. And it would be constructed of Kyle Walker–

“Sorry,” you interrupt, “Walker – Tottenham’s wing-back Kyle Walker – is playing at centre-back now?”

Yes, you insist. The past version raises an eyebrow but, considering they’re open-minded enough to accept that a version of themselves from the future is speaking to them, they let you carry on.

So it’s Walker, John Stones, and Harry Maguire. Past-you takes it in, then frowns.

“Who’s Harry Maguire?”

The present day


In 2016, Harry Maguire had travelled to the European Championship as a fan. He’d just been part of Hull City’s promotion-winning side, where he’d played just 1,637 league minutes, the equivalent of 18.19 full games in a 45-game season (Hull made it up through the play-offs).

It’s worth going over this, because such was the enthusiasm, the hope, for the England men’s national team earlier this summer, we took the current back-line completely in our stride.

It’s bizarre. Truly wacky.

It’s a sign of our increasing tactical understanding, as a nation, that we even accept it, without rioting. Any other time in the last two decades, the tabloids would have had a field day.

But no: Stoneshas always been a ball playing defender, so that makes sense; Walker is in what could be called ‘the Azpilicueta role’; and Maguire is sort of the nation’s favourite defender, even before his goal against Sweden.

The World Cup

Even though this line-up, this collection of oddities, was no longer caused jarring discomfort in our traditional English hearts, there were still questions about how they would actually perform at the World Cup.

England’s system has, for the most part, sheltered them. Gareth Southgate’s side have spent a lot of time in possession of the ball, and a lot of their time without it has involved attackers and midfielders keeping the opposition at bay.

At times, England have been broken against. In these situations, the plan is for the back-line (and usually Jordan Henderson too) to drop off and absorb the pressure. While England’s centre-backs have dealt with this perfectly finely, ‘functioning legs’ is the bulk of what it requires.

This is all reflected in the stats. Maguire and Walker have barely made any defensive actions at all (1.44 tackles plus interceptions per 90 minutes for Maguire, 1.16 for Walker). Stones has been a bit more active, making 1.44 tackles per 90 alone, about an average level, but only when including all the players at this World Cup.

Possession is nine-tenths of the job

Because of the nature of the England team – that they’ll dominate most matches – and the style of defending when the team is broken against, most of the work that the three centre-backs have had to do has been with the ball at their feet.

This is how it was planned, though, and is why the three looks as it does. Stones, as has been said, has always been a ball-player; Walker is used to carrying play up the pitch; and Maguire is like a scientific experiment to combine the two.

Harry Maguire of England

The Leicester City centre-half is capable of super line-splitting passes, while also having made the most successful take ons per 90 of any centre-back in the Premier League last season. Not only that, but his rate (1.34 per 90) was more than double that of ninth place Rob Holding (0.65).

England’s opposition have done their best to restrict him though. As Statsbomb’s Ted Knutson pointed out, Colombia used Maguire as a pressing trigger. When he got the ball, usually they would press. Whether this was to try and get the ball – Maguire having the loosest touch of the back-three – or just to try and keep him reigned in, is hard to tell.

Not perfect

However, on the ball, the centre-backs have left a little to be desired. Both Walker and Maguire have lost it in deep areas, leading to many hearts in mouths as (in various matches) Tunisia and Colombia advanced towards goal after a centre-back error.

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Stones has looked the safest – partly because of his ability, partly the other two, being wider, are easier to press – but he hasn’t moved the ball up the field as might have been hoped.

His split-second cautious dithering has been a trait since his Everton days, and means that when he’s sure on a pass it’s no longer open. Fortunately, he at least has the sense not to try and force it, meaning that he’s frustrating, but at least not a danger to his own team.

There have been glimmers of skill though, a few line-splitting passes, and an increased tendency, as the tournament’s gone on, to step up alongside Henderson when England have the ball, to try and create an angle to receive a pass past the first line of the opposition defence.

Has it worked?

Whether the, quite frankly radical, back-line that England are playing will be judged a success will probably depend on what happens between July 11 and July 15.

The perception probably also relies on no-one having taken their chances when a (to be fair, rare) mistake with the ball has been made. Had Tunisia scored after Wahib Khazri nicked the ball off Maguire in the first half of England’s opener, the experiment might not have lasted this long.

The most certain thing you can say about them is that it’s an out-there idea, that took courage to implement, that made sound footballing sense. The three work within their roles in the back-three and, as an added bonus, include two of England’s main set-piece aerial threats.