Matthew Upson believes Gareth Southgate made the correct call by sticking with a three-man defence during Monday’s victory over Tunisia, despite England’s struggles to break down their deep-set, organised opponents.
England dominated the opening stages in Volgograd and created several early opportunities to score, eventually taking a 12th-minute lead through Harry Kane. Tunisia hit back, however, with Ferjani Sassi converting a penalty after Kyle Walker’s elbow inside the area.
Southgate’s side toiled for much of the second half while searching for a second, and given Tunisia’s lack of ambition, he may have elected to sacrifice one of his three central defenders in favour of another forward.
The England manager refused, however, to alter the 3-5-2 formation that has served him well of late and his perseverance was rewarded by Kane, who scored a stoppage-time winner.
Upson – who won 21 international caps between 2003 and 2010 and remains the last England player to score in a World Cup knockout-stage game – believes that ‘chopping and changing’ the system could only have led to more frustration.
“When you play three-at-the-back, it’s a hard enough system to nail anyway. I think it’s quite hard in domestic football, when you’re training and working together on a daily basis and even harder at international level when you have players for 10 days at a time every few months.
“To chop and change, for me it shows desperation. Personnel changes and tweaks in some positions, like the front three or playing a midfielder more advanced – I’m sure that goes on. But in terms of changing the shape and formation, I think it’s the right call.”
Upson, a former centre-half himself, is a fan of Southgate’s three man defence – comprised of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire – and believes that Monday night provided an example of how effective it can be.
“We restricted a team to one shot on target which was a penalty. I think in terms of this game, it speaks for itself. It was very solid. I think with the personnel we have, it fits the shape and functions very well,” he said.
“The key thing about having three at the back is that it might even affect the team in possession more than out of possession but everyone seemed to know their role. It allowed the wing-backs to be very attacking. Kieran Trippier really benefitted from that, he had a great game. I was pleased.
“The only blemish was the penalty and you found a player in Kyle Walker who’s used to be a full-back in a real centre-half position, dealing with a cross in the middle of the six-yard box. It’s foreign territory for him and he just got his body shape wrong. Other than that, I think it worked very well.”
Walker is naturally a right-back – perhaps the best in England at present – but he has been deployed as a right-sided centre-half by Southgate. Upson believes the Manchester City player has adapted to the role well, despite his error in conceding the penalty.
“I like him,” the former Arsenal, Birmingham City and West Ham United defender said. “We have Maguire – very physical, very much a centre-back. Stones plays that position regularly and reads the game well and you have Walker, who for me is outstanding one-on-one and the pace he has is electric.
“When you look at their attributes as a three, they all have something a little bit different and he’s an important person to have on that side. It’s just those centre-back positions, tucking in and defending crosses. That is the one thing he’ll look at and do a bit of work on and hopefully he’ll be better in the next game.”
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