Home » England’s change of shape against Switzerland worked – to a point – thanks to Bukayo Saka

England’s change of shape against Switzerland worked – to a point – thanks to Bukayo Saka

England’s change of shape against Switzerland worked – to a point – thanks to Bukayo Saka

By this point, it’s time to accept that England will not play good football at Euro 2024. They will not exploit the full potential of the Bundesliga top goalscorer, the Premier League’s player of the year or arguably La Liga’s player of the year. There have been no vintage victories, no truly convincing performances, and the feeling is one of frustration as much as elation back home. But they could still win it.

Gareth Southgate’s approach for yesterday’s penalty-shootout win over Switzerland was the clearest sign yet that England have given up on being good, and are happy to try to make the opposition bad. Southgate abandoned his Plan A, the system he used throughout the group stage and in the narrow 2-1 win over Slovakia, and switched to a back five featuring wing-backs.

Or did he?

Southgate’s change of shape was widely reported in the build-up to the game, seemingly with Bukayo Saka switching to left wing-back and Kieran Trippier playing that role on the right. Southgate remained coy about the system in pre-match interviews, although Phil Foden seemingly went off-message beforehand, saying that England were going to match up Switzerland’ 3-4-3 in order to press them high.

So it was something of a surprise when the game started, and Saka was still on the right, and Trippier was still on the left. Was it the same system after all?

Well, no. Here’s England in the defensive phase — a five, a two, and a three.

Here’s England trying to progress the ball through the middle third — a five, a two and a three.

And here’s England in attack — a five, a two and a three, albeit with Foden and Kobbie Mainoo briefly in each other’s positions. The positioning varies according to whether or not England have possession, but this is obviously a system featuring wing-backs.

And that made sense against Switzerland’s system, in order to press high, as Foden said. 3-4-3 against 3-4-3 is an easy press, with everyone having a direct opponent.

Here’s Foden, Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham pressing high up, with Mainoo backing them up. England didn’t press particularly effectively in terms of winning the ball, but as a defensive tactic it was broadly effective, and territorially England were better than in their previous four games as they played the majority of the game inside the Switzerland half.

But then, here’s another example of England in their defensive shape, when it looks more like two banks of four — with Saka, in particular, clearly not a wing-back but instead narrower than Kyle Walker. So what was this about? And why were Bukayo Saka and Kieran Trippier on the ‘wrong’ flanks?

Well, the main threat from Switzerland was their left flank, England’s right. Their rotations down that side, particularly in their opening win over Hungary and their dismantling of Italy in the round of 16, have been among the most impressive, cohesive elements of any side’s attack in this competition. England were going to need to watch them carefully, and be prepared to vary their shape in response.

At times, England would defend with a back four, and at times with a three. Therefore, it made sense for Saka to play on the right and drop in to become a wing-back when required. Had Trippier played on that side, he would sometimes have become the right-sided midfielder in a four. And had Saka played on the opposite side, he would sometimes have been forced into a left-back role.

Saka was fielded from the right, then, with major defensive responsibilities. His priority was stopping Michel Aebischer, arguably the best left-sided player in the tournament until this stage, and notable for his tendency to drift infield from a wing-back position to become a No 10.

In the opening stages, Saka positioned himself deeper and narrower than you’d expect for a player providing the right-sided width. This switch of play towards Aebischer prompts Saka to press him, perhaps leading Aebischer to take his eye off the ball and let it run past him and out of play.

And England successfully shut down Switzerland’s rotating left flank through good communication. Here, Aebischer moves inside and is marked by Kyle Walker, England’s right-sided defender.

That means Walker points for Saka to drop in and defend the right of the pitch against Ruben Vargas, Switzerland’s left-winger.

Seconds later, Walker is now watching Swiss striker Breel Embolo, so is instructing Saka to keep an eye on both Aebischer and Vargas.

And then, when they both move central, John Stones is seemingly calling for Saka to keep an eye on Ricardo Rodriguez, Switzerland’s left-sided centre-back, who is now providing the width on the right.

Saka, at various times in the space of 10 seconds, was responsible for left-winger Vargas, left wing-back Aebischer, and left centre-back Rodriguez. England’s precise positions down that side were slightly undefinable, which means the formation question is slightly redundant. They simply had to organise themselves to deal with the rotations, and they did that excellently.

Here’s another example. Left wing-back Aebischer is briefly inside, in a No 10 position, next to Mainoo. He jogs across to the near side…

… which prompts Mainoo to point to Walker to mark him…

… but then Aebischer moves into a position where Saka feels the need to close him down…

… but then Aebischer drifts narrow and Saka has to watch Rodriguez on the overlap. On paper it’s basic and maybe it’s a little boring. But England didn’t switch off and find themselves exposed down that flank once, in stark contrast to Italy in the previous round.

The problem for England was that, having chosen a shape to nullify Switzerland, they offered almost nothing going forward. Despite Foden, Bellingham and Kane all playing in roughly their favoured positions and positioned close together, there was no combination play, no flowing passing moves, and very few goalscoring chances.

Instead, England’s only bright moments came from individual magic, and it was hugely impressive that Saka, given such a major defensive task, also led the fight, despite often being closed down by multiple Swiss players.

In the early stages, like for this switch of play, Kyle Walker often made overlapping or underlapping runs to support him.

But Saka was actually more effective when allowed to go solo, given space to attack into. All England’s good moments came from him, like when he spun Aebischer to get into a good cutback position:

Or when he beat two opponents to reach the byline and pull back the ball to Mainoo:

Or, most obviously, when England had gone behind and desperately needed an equaliser, when Saka came up with his trademark goal, cutting inside from the right and delicately curling the ball inside off the far post.

And while Southgate had gone for broke with three attack-minded changes shortly before the goal, he deserves credit for keeping a consistent structure, simply with bold choices in various positions. Luke Shaw slotted in well at left centre-back, as he’s often done for Manchester United, Eberechi Eze offered more drive than Trippier down the left, and the introduction of Cole Palmer offered more attacking threat, with Bellingham dropping back alongside Rice.

England’s all-out-attack approach also offered a reasonably secure defence, and Southgate didn’t need to make any further changes to restore balance. Instead, he could use his changes — Ivan Toney, Trent Alexander-Arnold to bring on penalty takers.

And yet, for all this, did the approach really work?

The underlying numbers suggest that, for the second game running, England gave up better chances than they created. The cautious, rather tedious, approach in the group stage has given way to England actually being outplayed by — on paper — inferior sides, and essentially relying on opponents not finishing their chances.

But England are through. The Netherlands, and then France or Spain, stand between them and a somewhat unlikely looking European Championship success.

Southgate’s default approach is no longer applicable, and he will now seemingly take a horses-for-courses approach. The complicated factor is that whereas the Swiss were dangerous down their left, the Dutch threat from wing-back comes from their right, through the speedy running of Denzel Dumfries.

But England have shown they can use a back three, a back four and something in between, with roughly the same personnel. Assuming an unchanged side — or Marc Guehi coming back in for Ezri Konsa — the identity of the starting XI for the semi-final won’t necessarily reveal the formation.