Should England change formation?

After a positive first half of 2019, winning the SheBelieves Cup and getting to the World Cup semi-final, the Lionesses had a fairly torrid end to the year. From the semi-final against the USA onwards England have won just two games from eight.

They’ve suffered losses against the USA, Sweden, Norway, Brazil and Germany. They drew 3-3 with Belgium, after leading 2-0, and their only wins were fairly unconvincing against opposition they were expected to beat in Portugal and Czech Republic. Like anything that seems to decline in quality, it makes you start questioning whether they were that good in the first place. Was the World Cup performance genuinely good or did we all just get caught up in the hype?

While this isn’t going to be a look back on the World Cup, I do think England were mostly good in France. There were some issues. At times the structure in possession, particularly when building from the back, didn’t seem great. They didn’t seem to generate many shots, but on the plus side, they tended to favour quality over quantity. Then there’d always be a period of the game where it felt as though they’d switch off and allow the opposition some chances. It happened in both the second half of the Scotland game and late on against Norway. Despite this, their xG figures were good, even in the game against the US. England matched their xG in open play and also missed a penalty.

The question regarding the change in formation doesn’t stem from England’s performances in 2019 though. It stems from what’s been happening in the WSL this season.

Given national teams have a lot less time with their players, I think they should strive to have as many players play in a role and style they’re familiar with and preferably play at club level. It’s what was frustrating about the 3-5-2 England men’s side used in the 2018 World Cup. None of the players used that system at club level and some players were being asked to play a different way than they do for their clubs.

The difference in the England women’s side isn’t as great – playing four at the back means around half the team will likely be playing the same as they do for their club straight away. However, this season two of the top three teams in the WSL have opted for a 4-4-2 shape. It wouldn’t be a big change for England, who have fielded 4-2-3-1 under Neville, but a key difference would be the inclusion of two forwards as opposed to a forward and a #10.

So, what are some reasons why England might consider giving 4-4-2 a try?

The form of Bethany England

The idea of a team changing shape just to accommodate the form an individual always feels annoying but with England (the player, this could get confusing) it may be justifiable.

This is being written during the midweek fixtures so doesn’t account for the data from those games, but England is having a remarkable season. I wrote about some of her numbers in my last piece so won’t repeat myself too much here. She leads the league in xG per 90 and has a pretty even distribution of shots with her right foot, left foot and head. She doesn’t record a huge number of pressures in general, but this is likely due to Chelsea’s pressing style as she does record the 2nd most for her team.

Crucially for this piece, she’s also been playing in a front two. New signing Sam Kerr has played alongside her in a 4-4-2 as has Erin Cuthbert since Kerr has been away on international duty. It’s hard to imagine a player being in as good as form as England not start for their national side. However, there’s also Ellen White.

White had a great World Cup for England. She was active when out of possession, held up the ball well and scored some crucial goals – even when feeding off scraps like in the Japan game.

In the league this season White has 4th highest xG per 90 but has a better xA per 90 than England as well as more pressures – again the difference in team can impact that. Like England though, she’s also played in a pair. In recent weeks she’s been partnered with Pauline Bremer who has some strong numbers, while she’s also played alongside Georgia Stanway or Tessa Wullaert.

While it’s still early in each of their relationships, given neither have clashed with their strike partner at club level, you’d assume they’d make a good partnership at international level.

So England have two in-form forward who could make a good partnership, but what about the rest of the side?

The Manchester City Influence

It’s no secret that a good portion of the England side plays their club football at Manchester City. England could feasibly line up with six City players – and that’s a realistic line-up, not a ‘how many City players can we squeeze into the England side’ line-up. As previously mentioned, taking advantage of any kind of familiarity on a club level could benefit the national side and City could present England with an interesting option for the 4-4-2.

City’s 4-4-2 tends to be a bit lopsided. Playing Janine Beckie as a makeshift attacking right-back after Aoife Mannion’s injury is likely the cause, but it’s an interesting move from City. Jill Scott tucks in while Beckie supplies the width on the right, creating the most xT per 90 in the league with her runs and crosses from the right flank. On the left, it’s balanced out by Demi Stokes being a more defensive full-back and Lauren Hemp offering the width.

The midfield pairing of Keira Walsh and Caroline Weir drop deep and help with the build-up, with Walsh having some great progression numbers and Weir’s footwork offering some nice press resistance – while the Scottish international has also been hugely active at regaining possession this season.

At it’s most extreme it’s almost an odd 3-5-2. Stokes would become the third centre-back. Walsh, Weir and Scott central with Beckie and Hemp wide and then the front two. However, it rarely takes up this exact shape.

An example can be seen with their pass map against Brighton & Hove Albion below. You can see how much more advanced Beckie is compared to the other full-back (Megan Campbell rather than Stokes in this game) and the difference in the wide players Scott and Hemp.

Click to enlarge

So, how does this affect England?

Both Walsh and Stokes can play the same role they do for their club, while Lucy Bronze can take Beckie’s place as the attacking right-back.

The problem for England is where to deploy Scott. Not only do England have quite a few talented players who could be useful on the right, but they also don’t seem to have a player in the mould of Caroline Weir. Weir’s mix of technical ability and activeness out of possession seems hard to come by. England’s best bet feels like it would be to partner Walsh and Scott in the middle – given Scott is also active out of possession, registering the 5th most pressures per 90 in the league – and opting for a different player on the right.

Scott could then operate on the right of central midfield, plugging the gap created by the attacking right-back, while Walsh could operate on the left, allowing her to open her body up and funnel the ball towards the right flank, which tends to be one of her more common passes.

The worry is that a switch to this system could leave the team too light in midfield. It’s a legitimate concern. Neither Scott or Walsh are really ball-winning midfielders – despite the former’s impressive pressure numbers. Walsh said it herself in a recent interview: “I’m not a traditional holding English midfielder, I’m not a tough tackler breaking up play, it’s not my forte.”

Jordan Nobbs could operate centrally with Walsh and Scott could play the role she’s currently playing for City, but, while she’d bring a lot of other qualities, would do little for the defensive concerns of the system.

It’s also questionable whether the change in formation would benefit England’s wide attackers. Hemp may be able to play on the left as she does for her club but it doesn’t feel like it’d benefit Nikita Parris or Beth Mead, who performed well in their wide forward roles during the World Cup.

So, should they change?

It’s tough to say. Bethany England’s form and the fact that both Manchester City and Chelsea have switched to 4-4-2 is some food for thought for the Lionesses. Having both White and England at their disposal and both playing in a front two makes it tempting, but it also raises issues in other areas of the pitch. Whether the pros of having these two forwards outweighs some of the cons elsewhere on the pitch is questionable.

With games against high-quality opposition and little room for error, the SheBelieves Cup may not be the best testing ground, but it would be nice for England to try a 4-4-2 with both England and White playing at some point.