At the beginning of both of their warm-up matches before Euro 2020, England set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Jack Grealish as the No 10 in front of a defensive midfield duo. But the return of Mason Mount for their Euro 2020 opener against Croatia saw Gareth Southgate switch back to the 4-3-3 shape which served them so well in qualifying, and the decision to go with a less rigid midfield played a crucial role in their victory at Wembley.
A well-balanced central three saw Mount and Kalvin Phillips given licence to surge forwards and an obligation to press high either side of Declan Rice sitting deep in front of the defence, and the attacking pair were excellent. Phillips was particularly impressive and it was his assist which finally unlocked the door, gliding away from a couple of tacklers nipping at his ankles before sliding in Raheem Sterling to score.
It wasn't just on the ball that Phillips shined. His naturally aggressive style, honed at Leeds single-handedly marshalling Marcelo Bielsa’s defence, helped to regularly disrupt the rhythms of Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, barreling into challenges chest-first, at one point steaming in on Marcelo Brozovic with such purpose the Croatian sent a hurried pass straight off the pitch.
As Sterling cut inside from the wing, Mount drifted out to the left and Rice shifted across to that side a little more to offer protection. Behind them, the back four were relatively flat and perhaps that was a reason to select Kieran Trippier, a player who has spent a season in Diego Simeone's military-grade defensive line where full-backs' first priority is guarding their goal.
If there were some eyebrows raised over the inclusions of Trippier and Sterling in the starting line-up, the pair quickly answered any questions when they combined twice inside the first 10 minutes. Trippier fired a long throw right through the heart of the pitch to set off Sterling running at the Croatian defence leading to Phil Foden's low shot against the post, and a few moments later Trippier again showed his distribution with a fired pass over the top into Sterling's path.
Sterling's runs from the left flank were important in getting behind Croatia when they moved high up the pitch and he helped stretch some ageing legs. Southgate clearly values his relationship with Harry Kane and it was Kane's movement vacating his space as No9 which left the gap for Sterling to fill and finish from.
Phillips, though, was the key. “Being able to work with the coach he has and having a season playing in the Premier League will have given him confidence but all the attributes are there,” said Southgate. “For us he’s a very good footballer. High performance, low maintenance. We like that a lot.”
Most of the official starting line-ups before kick-off had him playing as part of a midfield two with Rice, but the decision to set him free in a three brought rich reward. It is only one match, but it seems England have their tournament template.
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