England have remained solid – against all expectation

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England are only the second team in European Championship history not to concede a goal in their opening four matches. They have been breached just once in their last 12 games, by Poland’s Jakub Moder in a World Cup qualifier in March, and their current run without conceding is the longest in the history of the national team. 

For a team with a long charge sheet of tournament calamity, an ever-changing backline, a supposedly accident-prone goalkeeper and a first-choice central defender returning from injury, it is some record. 

It is also strong vindication for Gareth Southgate’s tactical approach, which has been criticised for being unduly conservative. Summer tournaments tend to be won by parsimonious teams, though – even the great Spain sides reeled off 1-0 wins – so history is on his side. 

Of course, football being football, there is contingency in every game. If Scotland’s Che Adams had hit the target or Thomas Muller had found the bottom corner, then England’s paltry attacking output would have come under greater scrutiny. 

However, you do not concede one goal in 12 by blind luck. So how have England done it? 

Safety in numbers

Concerns about England’s defensive personnel are by no means unfounded, despite strong showings from John Stones and Harry Maguire against Germany. In fact, Southgate probably has some of his own which is why he has sought to protect his defence at all times. 

The late Muller chance aside, rarely have we seen England defenders forced to defend in isolation in wide open space. There is almost always a core of four, sometimes five, players behind the ball or in position to transition to defensive shape should the worst happen and England lose the ball. 

This does not mark out Southgate as a tactical outlier or unusually cautious. Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel have rarely strayed from their foundation of three defenders with Jorginho and N’Golo Kante sat in front (as ‘double sixes’ in Tuchel’s words). Pep Guardiola is not known for taking a backward step tactically, but his outfield players can also be split in half in certain games with five attackers and five others tasked with stopping the counter-attack. 

Southgate has tried to strike this balance in different ways. In the 1-0 victory against Croatia in their opening game, Southgate asked full-backs Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier (a right-footer playing on the left) to play in a circumspect way and stay attached to their centre-backs. 

England’s average positions against Croatia: a back four with cautious full-backs

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Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice have been ever-present in central midfield. Against Scotland, a performance which had its wrinkles, they stayed flat as a pair to form a box of four with the central defenders. 

England’s average positions against Scotland with Rice and Phillips (4 and 14) deep

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Against Germany, there was another tweak as England returned to the back three/five system which served them well at the World Cup in Russia. It looked on the pitch much as you would draw it up on paper. 

England’s average positions against Germany with the back five 

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England had first-half problems with a four-against-two in the middle, with Rice and Phillips engaged with Leon Goretzka and Toni Kroos as Muller and Kai Havertz popped up behind them, but survived. 

The importance of the converted full-back 

England are not the only team in the tournament to use a back three, with France doing likewise to disastrous effect against Switzerland. Unlike England, France’s players appeared to have no idea what was asked of them by Didier Deschamps or else had no faith in the plan. 

Mutiny aside, one reason why England were able to successfully execute the system against Germany was the presence of Kyle Walker as the right centre-back. Using a converted full-back in this role is becoming a theme among the best exponents of the system. They are comfortable defending wide areas and can become a valuable spare man in attack. 

Kyle Walker’s heat map (based on touches) vs Germany: More like a right-back than centre-back with England kicking from left to right

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Incidentally, this was something Terry Venables employed to good effect with England at Euro ’96, using Gary Neville and Stuart Pearce either side of Tony Adams. More recently, Cesar Azpilicueta repeatedly provided crosses for striker Diego Costa from right centre-back when Chelsea won the title under Antonio Conte in 2016-17. Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United were also lauded for the roles their wide centre-backs played offensively. Left-back Kieran Tierney was excellent for Scotland at Wembley in this role, the stadium where he won the FA Cup with Arsenal in the same position. 

When Kieran Trippier decided to push right in on Germany left wing-back Robin Gosens, Walker could shuffle across and England suddenly had morphed into an orthodox back four of Walker, Stones, Maguire and Luke Shaw. You simply do not have this flexibility if you pick three orthodox central defenders, as France had in Raphael Varane, Clement Lenglet and Presnel Kimpembe (not to mention a central midfielder at left wing-back in Adrien Rabiot). 

Kyle Walker’s touch map against Germany shows his flexibility to play in different zones

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Sterile but safe possession 

It is the age-old accusation thrown at England at tournaments: the inability to keep possession of the football, leading to fatigue and death by a thousand cuts due to opposition pressure. 

Under Southgate, there is an attempt to build play in a more deliberate fashion and draw the venom out of the contest by retaining possession in the back half of the team. Sometimes this possession is rather sterile, frustratingly so, with Rice and Phillips appearing redundant when England are building play. But England are certainly playing at ‘tournament tempo’. There are precious few examples of teams gaining dangerous counter-attacks against England. 

Southgate is blessed to have defenders such as Stones and Maguire who are comfortable distributors, with Maguire’s forays forward a striking feature of his game since returning against Czech Republic. The ‘ball-playing centre-back’ has approached unicorn status in English football down the decades, with Bobby Moore and Rio Ferdinand rare examples. A new generation of defenders are different. 

England have actually attempted more passes in their defensive third, 106.3 per game, than Italy and Spain at the Euros. It is the third-highest tally of any nation left in the tournament. 

One could argue that is a sign that Italy and Spain are more adept at transferring the ball to the middle and attacking thirds, but it is a notable stylistic emphasis for an England team. 

Passes attempted in own defensive third

Intermittent pressing 

England came flying out of the traps against Croatia with a frenzied display of pressing in their opening game. It was possibly their best 20 minutes of football this summer, certainly judged on proactivity, but they have not been able – or even been interested – in sustaining that defensive strategy. 

England lost their legs in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia three years ago, so Southgate will know the importance of conserving energy after a club season with a brutal schedule. England have therefore picked their moments to press, often doing so at the start of matches before dropping into their shape. 

Passes per defensive action (PPDA) is a good indicator of the ferocity of a team’s pressing. The fewer passes they allow before making a tackle, interception, foul or winning a duel, the more intense the pressing. So the lower the number, the better (if pressing is what you’re trying to do). 

England’s Euro 2020 PPDA figure of 17.6 is the highest of any team left in the tournament, so England are pursuing a policy of containment. Only Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, Wales and Hungary recorded a higher figure. By contrast, Spain’s PPDA figure is just 8.2, which is one small reason why they dominate territory and possession to such an extent. However, if you can play through that pressure, there could be a glass chin to expose as Croatia demonstrated in Copenhagen. 

Passes per defensive action at Euro 2020

Making fouls at the right time

England are very much middle of the pack for fouls committed per game, but Rice and Phillips have certainly been combative. Only two players at the tournament have committed more fouls than the Leeds United midfielder, and provided Phillips’ aggression is under control breaking up play can be valuable. It stops potentially dangerous breaks and lets his team-mates get organised behind the ball. 

England’s fouls committed against Croatia: three in midfield by the industrious Phillips

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The midfield pair may have committed more fouls to disrupt Germany had they not picked up first-half bookings. They had their challenges in the first half against the class of Kroos and Goretzka, but grew stronger as the game progressed and walked the disciplinary tightrope like old heads. 

England’s fouls committed against Germany: stopping attacks at source with fouls high up

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The form of Jordan Pickford

There is no such thing as the perfect performance, never mind the perfect tournament. England have had to be thankful for the agility and reflexes of their goalkeeper at important moments, and Pickford’s assurance (so far) has been one of the campaign’s pleasant surprises. 

Not only have his saves been impressive in isolation, they have been crucial, match-changing interventions at 0-0. A strong factor behind England’s clean defensive record is the fact they are yet to concede the game’s first goal. This creates a virtuous circle, because if you do not have to chase the game your defenders are less exposed and Southgate can stick to the original plan and structure put in place on the training ground. 

Nor has Pickford been peppered with shots, so his powers of concentration have been spot on. A goalkeeper’s ability to make saves after being untroubled for long periods is a mark of real quality. England have not conceded many chances. While expected goals and other such metrics do not mean a huge amount in a seven-game (at most) cup competition, only Italy have a better xG conceded total after four matches.

Lowest expected goals conceded totals at Euro 2020

Pickford’s talent for blockbuster long-range kicks from hand has never been in question, but his handling and presence in one-against-one situations certainly has. Whether diving low to his right to keep out Scotland’s Stephen O’Donnell’s shot or tipping Havertz’s fierce volley over the bar, Pickford thoroughly deserves the plaudits coming his way.