When Kieran Trippier was selected at left-back for England’s Euro 2020 opener against Croatia it raised more than a few eyebrows.
Gary Neville hit the nail on the head in the ITV studio, correctly claiming that no one in the country would have selected that XI before kick off – other than Gareth Southgate, of course.
However, the bold move worked with Trippier not putting a foot wrong, restricting England’s opponents to scraps down the entire right side. This surprise inclusion rather set the tone for Southgate’s decision-making at the tournament.
The Three Lions boss has never shown a hint of bowing to public pressure, most notably ignoring the clamour for Jack Grealish to start, and sticking firmly to his guns on other big decisions. The introduction of Bukayo Saka was another example of his forthrightness. Again, this proved an inspired decision with the Arsenal man starring on each of his two starts in the competition.
Prior to the tournament the public were split over whether he even warranted a place in the squad.
Southgate has saved another surprise for the final, switching his side to a back five after two consecutive victories using a 4-2-3-1. One of his most trusted lieutenants, Trippier, is the man to come in – replacing fellow surprise package Saka.
That is the only change, meaning Jordan Pickford will be starting in goal behind a back five of Tripper, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. In midfield, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips – another example of Southgate’s brave selection calls during the tournament – keep their places.
Up front things get a bit more complicated. On the one previous occasion that England used a back three in Euro 2020 – that glorious 2-0 win over Germany – Raheem Sterling started on the left with Saka on the right and Kane through the middle. Mason Mount, who also keeps his place in the side, is more than capable of playing a wide forward berth – particularly with England’s wingers frequently taking the ball to feet just behind Kane previously – but he has tended to play on the left.
This might force Sterling, England’s offensive talisman, over to the right. The shift seems unfortunate at first glance, with the Manchester City man causing so much damage with his direct running down the left, but when you realise the defensively suspect Emerson will likely be playing left-back for Gli Azzurri, it suddenly sounds a lot more promising.
Even still, Southgate’s thinking behind the tactical tweak is not immediately obvious. The switch to a back three against Germany was easy to understand. Die Mannschaft’s wing-backs had torn Portugal to shreds previously, so matching up to their system was a necessity.
The same does not apply for the Italy game.
Roberto Mancini has stoically stuck to a 4-3-3 this tournament, so what is Southgate thinking? One possibility is that he wants to prevent Italy’s full-backs bombing on by getting his wing-backs to push high. For all of his defensive shortcomings, Emerson is terrific going forward and on the other side, Giovanni Di Lorenzo is a danger as well, particularly when he teams up with Federico Chiesa.
While the switch should hopefully give England supremacy out wide, they could be left short in the middle. Although both Walker and Maguire stepped up to assist the midfield against Germany, something they should do again in the final, on paper the Three Lions will have three centre-backs marking just one centre-forward in Ciro Immobile. He’s not exactly been Italy’s biggest threat in Euro 2020 either.
Instead, they have won games by strangling the opposition in midfield. Jorginho has been key, setting the tempo from deep. If England are to win they must make life difficult for the Chelsea man. In a 4-2-3-1, Mount would be the ideal candidate to do this. Off the ball, there are few attacking midfielders better, but if he is forced out wide to accommodate the back three Phillips and Rice may struggle to contain Italy in the middle third.
Regardless of how the tactical battle plays out, Southgate can leave the tournament with his head held high.
Unlike previous England managers, he has done the job on his own terms, consistently making tough choices and refusing to buckle under external pressure.
His tweaks for the final are by far the biggest decision he has ever made in his career and it will be fascinating to discover how it plays out this evening.