England manager Gareth Southgate will head into the World Cup with a three-man back line, even if it means good players missing out.
Qualification for next summer’s finals was straightforward enough, but the manner of recent performances produced more questions than answers.
Southgate is well aware that improvements are needed and, having sat down in the summer with assistant Steve Holland and made a “very strong assessment of the squad”, will now move to a three-man defence permanently.
Having dabbled with it in the friendlies at Germany and France, qualification with a game to spare allowed the Three Lions to try it again in Lithuania.
The upcoming friendlies with Germany and Brazil will be sterner tests of a formation Southgate believes could suit England, with the boss saying “some consistency” was now needed in formation and philosophy in order to help perform under pressure.
“I think we have got to focus on a system and really try to hone it, work on it, improve it,” the England manager said, having relied heavily on 4-2-3-1 in qualification.
“That might mean we might have to leave some good players out, but I think we have to start to make those decisions over the next couple of camps.”
Asked if playing three at the back was the way forwards, he said: “Yes, I think for us it is.
“For me, in terms of the way we’d want to play from the back, I think it’s a better option.
“At the moment we turn the ball over too much and when we turn it over, we split into two centre-backs, we’re wide open. We were still open (against Lithuania) with three, so it would be a benefit if we didn’t keep turning the ball over.
“But I think it gives us good stability and it gives easier solutions for our midfield players as well.
“Then what we play in front of it, there is a possibility to switch, maybe get two strikers in certain games.
“We felt keep the system as we have used it before, because it is such a quick turnaround of games.
“But three in midfield with two forwards also becomes an option, but I think three at the back is what we ought to do.”
The three-man defence is not only about staying firm, but providing an attacking springboard, with Southgate facing a challenge to shoehorn his best forwards into an effective line-up.
Southgate plumped for Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford in Lithuania along with captain Harry Kane, whose goal secured a 1-0 win just as it did when winning by the same scoreline against Slovenia on Thursday.
“Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney – in every era, we’ve had somebody,” he said of the Tottenham striker, who made it 15 goals in 10 appearances for club and country.
“I think what’s important is that the likes of Rashford, Alli, (Raheem) Sterling, (Adam) Lallana can also provide those goals.
“We’ve got to get goals from other areas. Fantastic if we have a centre-forward like Harry, but what if we don’t have him for a game?
“Rashford, 19, Alli, 20 – I had Harry at that age (with the under-21s) and he wasn’t the finished article either and I think those guys have the potential to come through as well.”