In English football, the concept of the back three is becoming increasingly accepted. Previously anathema for many, the success of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea with a three-man defensive line has opened minds, and the traditional back four is no longer the only defensive system on show at the upper echelons of the Premier League. Others — including Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Ronaldo Koeman’s Everton — have also enjoyed a level of success employing a three-man back line.
This all appears to have rubbed off on Gareth Southgate, as the England manager lined the national team up with a three-man defensive shape for their recent friendly away to Germany. It was a brave call — the last time England were set up in such a way was back in 2008, when Steve McLaren played Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry together in a European Championship qualifier against Croatia. The move backfired as England lost 2-0, and the back three was forgotten about after a dismal team performance.
However, during the 1-0 defeat to Germany last week, Southgate’s re-shuffled defence looked organised and capable. Thus, it is a possibility that the back three may be back on the table for England going forward.
Here, Football Whispers takes a look at the ten England centre-backs Southgate should consider for his defensive trident.
When Conte first implemented his back three at Chelsea earlier this season, there was concern about how effective a trio of César Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill would be given the former is a natural full-back, Luiz has a reputation for being error-prone, and the latter has appeared ungainly at times during his career. However, all three have looked at home and proven pivotal members of Chelsea’s title surge.
On the left of the three, Cahill has shown his usual commanding presence, though he has surprised with his calmness on the ball and willingness to drive forward when appropriate. His passing remains limited, but he offers Southgate a sound left-sided option for England’s back three.
Despite operating as a nominal right-back for much of his time at West Brom, Craig Dawson is a natural centre-back. It was in this position that he first made his name in the lower leagues with Rochdale, and with his aerial quality and rugged marking it’s easy to see why.
Within Tony Pulis’ system, Dawson essentially acts as both centre-back and right-back in a defensive line that morphs from back four to back six depending on the phase. With this in mind, the 26-year-old could be worth consideration for the right-sided role in Southgate’s back three.
There are few Premier League environments as defensively educational as Pochettino’s Tottenham. The Argentine manager has a knack for developing strong pressing sides with high levels of defensive organisation. Thus, it’s no surprise that, along with Chelsea, his Spurs team have conceded the fewest goals in England’s top tier this term.
Eric Dier made his name as a central midfielder, but he has played well at centre-back — often within a back three — this season. His combination of physical strength, technical ability and intelligence marks him out as a quality central defensive option for England.
Middlesbrough may be in the midst of a relegation dogfight, but that cannot be blamed on their defence. Indeed, their defensive record of 33 goals conceded is the best in the Premier League’s bottom half, and is also better than both Liverpool and Arsenal’s.
Ben Gibson has been crucial to Boro’s solidity at the back. At 6’1” he has the stature of an old-fashioned centre-back, but the 24-year-old is also good on the ball, with one of the higher pass accuracy percentages among Premier League central defenders. In addition to that, he is a natural left footer, meaning he could suit the left-sided role in Southgate’s new-look back line.
Good 4-0 win away against Denmark ???… meant a lot to put the shirt back on again ???? pic.twitter.com/meUntt278R
— Joe Gomez (@J_Gomez97) March 27, 2017
Prior to suffering a bad cruciate ligament injury in October 2015, Joe Gomez was fast emerging as one of the brightest young talents in the English game. He had made an immediate impression on the Premier League after joining Liverpool from Charlton Athletic, showing his tactical flexibility and offensive capability from a full-back position.
However, Gomez is naturally a centre-back and, having returned to fitness, he remains a serious prospect at just 19 years of age. His comfort on the ball and ability to play almost anywhere across the back line make him an exciting long-term possibility for England’s defence.
One of the most enticing aspects of Ronald Koeman’s management is his willingness to nurture youth. And the Dutchman has done just that since taking charge at Everton, with Mason Holgate one of his best discoveries.
The 20-year-old, who joined from Barnsley in 2015, has adapted well to the right-sided centre-back role whenever Koeman has opted for a back three, displaying an assuredness rarely seen in defenders so young.
It’s no surprise that Phil Jones has enjoyed a return to form this season under the auspices of José Mourinho. The Portuguese manager is renowned for his rigorous defensive discipline, and his Manchester United sidehave been increasingly sound at the back as 2016-17 has worn on.
Jones is a versatile operator, a centre-back also able to play at right-back or in central midfield. He’s an astute marker too, hence why Mourinho tasked him with tracking Eden Hazard in the recent FA Cup clash with Chelsea. For these reasons, he is an obvious candidate for Southgate’s back three.
Having impressed for Burnley this season, Michael Keane has attracted interest from several clubs higher up the Premier League table. He also earned his first England call-up, and started in both recent fixtures against Germany and Lithuania.
On his international debut, Keane played on the right of Southgate’s back three and did not look out of place. His passing was efficient over short and long distance, and his positioning was sound.
At the age of 24, 2016-17 has been Harry Maguire’s first season of concerted Premier League action. And, far from being overwhelmed by this fact, the Hull centre-back has evinced composure on the ball, intelligence in his passing and clean tackling.
As a result, there have been calls for Maguire to be handed his first England cap. Considering he has experience of playing in a back three at club level, he looks well prepared for the step up to international level.
Over the last few years, John Stones has come in for criticism from fans and pundits. His whimsical style has not gone down well, with his occasionally mistimed forward forays and nonchalance on the ball leading to errors and goals conceded. Despite this, the 22-year-old has established himself in the England side, and rightly so.
With the ball at feet, no other England centre-back can match Stones. His passing is crisp, accurate and, more importantly, purposeful. He knows how to break the lines and play through opposition pressure, and he is also comfortable carrying the ball forward. He looks set to play a key role for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and should be at the heart of England’s defence if Southgate opts for the back three again in future.