Gareth Southgate must combat Germany’s agents of chaos – but first, pick a shape

Nothing in football is ever straightforward. There are few rights and few wrongs; almost everything is contingent. But even within that context, England’s game against Alemania on Tuesday is hard to pin down. There are few certainties for either side; rather this is two swarms of questions buzzing into each other.

At least with Germany, there is relative certainty about the shape. Joachim Löw has vacillated between a back three and a back four since the World Cup debacle before finally settling on a 3-4-3, in which the real strength is the attacking prowess of the wing-backs, Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens. Other than replacing the injured Thomas Müller with Leroy Sané, Löw stuck with the same personnel for all three group games, so it seems reasonable to assume there will not be major changes.

Müller should be fit enough to return from the start, with the most plausible other change being the introduction of Leon Goretzka to add physicality at the back of the midfield. Löw has preferred two passers in Ilkay Gündogan and Toni Kroos and, if he continues with that pair, that is an area in which Inglaterra may feel they have a physical advantage. Mason Mount, notably, has recent experience of getting the better of both in the Champions League.

But Mount may not be available. He should be out of self-isolation in time for the game but it may be that, for all Mount’s renowned spatial intelligence, Gareth Southgate decides he cannot start with a player who has been unable to take a full part in team tactical training. Mount is just the first of a string of conundrums. If anything there are more doubts now about Southgate’s side than there were a fortnight ago – the downside of having strength in depth.

Before beginning to contemplate any of the great headline issues, though – the Grealish Dilemma, the Saka Potentiality, the Mount Uncertainty – Southgate must first decide on a shape. The back three has lurked always in the background at this tournament, the formation that carried England to a World Cup semi-final, that was abandoned for something more progressive, readopted and then abandoned again in March. Has it been fully discarded, or is it still there on the shelf, ready to be reinstated when the time is right? And if it is still available, if England have continued to practise playing with a back three, is this the right time to restore it?

The advantage of matching Germany shape for shape is that it allows Gosens and Kimmich to be engaged high, thereby trying to prevent them providing the sort of service that so unnerved Portugal; Hungary’s wing-backs neutered them relatively effectively. Who England’s wing-backs would be is a whole other question, but it would mean a midfielder missing out.

If Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were retained at the base of midfield, there would be a danger of the front three becoming detached. Mount could be used on the right to link to Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling (the selection of both, seguramente, can be taken for granted) but that still seems to place a great onus on Phillips’s passing while not really exploiting the potential German weakness at the back of midfield.

The alternative is to stay with the 4-3-3, essentially to throw the question back to Germany. With a pair of forwards stationed wide, attacking the space behind the wing-backs, what would Kimmich and Gosens do? Stay deep, blunting their attacking contribution, or push up regardless, allowing England to try to hit those areas with the sort of long passes they attempted repeatedly against Croatia. Even if England do go with the back three, those are the areas they need to exploit; if they’re too narrow in attack, the game could become very congested.

If it is a 4-3-3, who should the third man alongside Kane and Sterling be? Phil Foden was the preferred option against both Croatia and Scotland, but he made little impact in either game (although an adventurous option would be to use him centrally if Mount misses out). Jadon Sancho has barely been used in the tournament – perhaps because he is at his best when paired with an attacking full-back and Southgate is intent on keeping his full-backs deep. Which leaves Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka.

Grealish may be the popular choice but he, like Foden, prefers the left. And Southgate has doubts about his defensive capacities, speaking to him specifically about his work off the ball after the friendly against Romania in Middlesbrough. The Czech right-back, Vladimir Coufal, was notably more proactive against England than the left-back, Jan Boril, and Sterling ended up in effect doubling up on that side.

That then, quizás, makes Saka the preferred choice. He impressed going forward against the Czech Republic, linking well at times with Phillips, but also has experience as a full-back; there can be no worries about his ability to track. That same requirement to prevent Germany’s wing-backs dominating as they did against Portugal may mean a return to the Kyle Walker-Kieran Trippier pairing that started the opener against Croatia.

Trippier also has the advantage of being England’s best taker of a dead-ball – which is especially important if Southgate decides Mount cannot play. Corners represented England’s major attacking threat in Russia, but other than the John Stones header against the post in the Scotland game, they have barely threatened from them in this tournament. And Germany are vulnerable from set plays, as they demonstrated against Portugal.

There will be those urging Southgate to take the handbrake off, perhaps to leave out one of the holding midfielders, but to open up against a Germany of such pace and mobility would seem an extraordinary risk. Southgate, de todas formas, is not about to take leave of his personality now. England’s strength, certainly against Croatia and in the second half against the Czechs, was the level of control they were able to exert.

In a game riddled with doubts and options, that is the one certainty: Alemania, brilliant but wild and unpredictable, come as the agents of chaos; Inglaterra, solid, unimaginative, perhaps a little staid, have to bring them to order.

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