Gareth Southgate’s perfect England team? Boss continues search for World Cup formation | Football | Sport

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And did Gareth Southgate’s much-vaunted three-man defence pass that test? Well, the jury has to be out on that after this performance. 

Like Holland in Amsterdam last week, Italy arrived at Wembley as another team who would be missing out on this summer’s festival of football in Russia. 

But Luigi Di Biagio’s team came with a very different attitude altogether. They were determined and aggressive – and gave England’s threesome a tough time.

Last night was the fifth game in a row that Southgate has used his three-man central defence with wing-backs. It was the fifth different combination of players the England manager had used. 

On the face of it, it is a successful ploy. Before last night this new defensive shape had led to five consecutive clean sheets. Italy, though, found the cracks – partly thanks to VAR.

Recent displays, including the 1-0 win against Holland had seemed to show that England were growing into the system – even if it meant Kyle Walker switching to an unfamiliar central role. But the Manchester City player adapted well.

That was, admittedly against the worst Holland team in a generation. 

Last night it was James Tarkowski who got his chance in the three after his impressive performances for Burnley. 

The significant fact about Tarkowski is that he is a ball-playing defender. 

He it was, though, who was harshly pulled up for the 88th-minute penalty that denied England their win.

The one constant in the last five games in that three-man defence has been Manchester City’s John Stones. 

Despite the inconsistency at club level that has seen him lose his place under Pep Guardiola, Southgate clearly believes totally in a player who has not started a club game in two months. In fairness, Stones has generally justified that faith.

Stones, to put it mildly, had a nervous start last night, letting the lively Ciro Immobile in behind him but recovering well, but then carelessly losing the ball on the edge of the area. He got away with it when the Lazio player shot high. 

One of the keys to the system is a goalkeeper who is comfortable on the ball. Jordan Pickford proved that – to an extent – on Friday night. Last night it was Jack Butland’s turn, but the Stoke man looked less sure of himself. Immobile could have had three goals in the first 16 minutes but gradually England settled. 

Jamie Vardy scored and Stones got over his bout of the wobbles. Yet Tarkowski looked nervous, easily skinned by Immobile in one darting run. Again, England got away with it.

A tough test was probably what this system needed. But there are still worries. Ashley Young was not even booked for carving Davide Zappacosta virtually in half. In a tournament that might have been a red card.

Then came the moment, as Federico Chiesa raced into the area. Tarkowksi did make contact but it looked as if the Italian was already going down. German referee Deniz Aytekin consulted VAR – and Lorenzo  Insigne despatched the penalty.

The jury is still out.



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