England tactical dilemmas: Can Kane, Rashford and Sterling still work?

Can Kane, Rashford and Sterling play together? Does Alexander-Arnold fit? And who should partner Maguire? England have won two out of two but manager Southgate will STILL be scratching his head

  • England have won two games out of two during the international break
  • Gareth Southgate though faces big tactical dilemmas in future matches
  • England manager’s new front three system could work against his best trio
  • The whole back line is also a concern for Southgate despite positive results 
  • Selection headache with Mason Mount and Jack Grealish may become a concern

So far so good for England, who following back-to-back wins during the international break, are looking in good shape in an attempt to end 55 years of hurt at next summer’s European Championship.

A comfortable 3-0 win over Wales was followed by a gritty 2-1 victory over the top-ranked side in the world , Belgium, in the Nations League. Both matches saw tactical experiments from Gareth Southgate where he didn’t select his strongest XI.

However, the England boss will still be scratching his head and stroking his chin ahead of his the final game of this international break against Denmark.

Here, Sportsmail looks at the tactical dilemmas he now has to contend with.

England have won both of their internationals this break against Wales and Belgium (above)

Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are among the first names you would put on the team sheet, yet the way England have set up recently raises doubts over whether they can all fit into the system.

Southgate will be delighted he has an abundance of attacking talent at his disposal, arguably England’s richest and most in depth since the late 1990s. The likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Danny Ings have made the most of their chances during this international break.

Harry Kane (centre), Raheem Sterling (right) and Marcus Rashford have formed an effective front three at international level but can they work in the current system?

Intriguingly though was the use of Jack Grealish and Mason Mount as part of the front three against Wales and Belgium respectively. Both started in wide positions before moving in to offer attacking support from central areas that is otherwise void.

Both impressed in the role too (more on that soon) but can Kane, Rashford and Sterling perform similar duties? All three are more attack focused, with Sterling arguably the most likely to play the role of cutting inside, but it does take away how clinical he can be inside a penalty box. Would it benefit the team?

Play to the trio’s strengths and Southgate has a huge creativity problem. It has already been exposed once during England’s lifeless performance in their goalless draw in Denmark in September when Jadon Sancho started instead of Rashford.

It’s the conundrum that keeps managers awake at night – do you play your best system or your best players?

Gareth Southgate has been left with plenty of tactical dilemmas despite two wins from two

Mount or Grealish?

It’s the conversation that should have taken place 15 years ago in relation to Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard rather than managers constantly trying to shoehorn both into a side with very limited success.

Southgate may have already learned from that but his problem will now be who can he pick if he sticks with a more midfield-minded player to feature in his front three.

Grealish has much of the momentum following an excellent performance in the win over Wales off the back of his excellent start to the season with Aston Villa. But Mount impressed against improved opposition, even getting on the scoresheet in the win over Belgium.

Mason Mount impressed in a more attacking wide role during the win over Belgium

Southgate played under a former Three Lions manager in Terry Venables, whose belief was it should be as hard to get out of an England squad as it was to get into it.

With that in mind, it looks like Mount may just have the edge over the Villa talisman for now given his nine caps over the last year suggest he has won over Southgate.

It may even work to England’s benefit, with Mount knowing his England place is far from secure as long as Grealish is around. Grealish in turn will know he must impress when he gets a chance. Healthy competition is one headache Southgate can live with.

But he can expect strong competition from Jack Grealish for his place in the England side

Does Alexander-Arnold work as a wing back?

One of the most frustrating aspects of the national team is seeing a player show his world-class ability on a weekly basis for his club yet struggle to produce at international level.

There is no question over Trent Alexander-Arnold’s talent but he has struggled to find his best form in his 12 senior caps so far.

Former England left-back Ashley Cole explained why the Liverpool star has yet to shine in an England shirt.

Trent Alexander Arnold has struggled to find his best form while playing for England

‘I don’t like to see him playing as a wing back,’ Cole said on Sunday. ‘He’s better suited playing from deeper and arriving into areas. With him coming into that space you start to see his range of crosses and passing. He did most of his work chasing the left wing-back trying to get in behind him, which I don’t think suits him.’ 

The problem Southgate now has is he cannot deploy Alexander-Arnold as a full-back in his current 3-4-3 system as it would severely deplete England’s threat down the right, especially if the right man in the front three is constantly cutting inside. 

Southgate may try and stick with it in the hope of developing the 22-year-old’s game. After all, it was his superb back-post cross that led to England’s winning goal against Belgium.

Former left-back Ashley Cole believes Alexander-Arnold is unsuited playing as a wing-back

What is England’s best formation?

To Southgate’s credit, the current 3-4-3 which was rightly criticised after the very poor performance in Denmark has been tweaked to address its tactical shortcomings since then by improving the service to the attack.

It still shows flaws though in that it remains a little too defensive. Come the crunch of a quarter-final against one of Europe’s big hitters next summer you do fear it will be shut down given its lack of attacking presence in the middle of the park.

The problem is, the reason it sides with a more cautious approach is England have a weakness in defence.

England have opted for a more cautious approach in recent games with defensive selections

Throwing more bodies at it has worked to an extent but it means veering away from a more conventional 4-3-3, which can get the best out of the Holy Trinity of Kane, Rashford, Sterling but leaves a suspect defence begging to be exploited. The result leaves you with ridiculous scores such as England 5-3 Kosovo.

Blending the two together for a more attack minded 3-5-2 helped England get to a World Cup semi-final but it was soon shut down by Croatia and Belgium (twice) in Russia, and convinced Southgate to bin it.

Finding the attacking-defending balance will be key for Southgate, right now his 3-4-3 might just be worth continuing to develop. 

Who are England’s best centre-backs?

Defenders who constantly play together begin to understand each other better and this can only strengthen their partnership.

That’s not a revelation but given the number of defenders Southgate has been experimenting with in recent times it’s fair to say he isn’t quite happy with his back three.

Harry Maguire (right) featured in a defence along with Eric Dier (left) who gave away a clumsy penalty in the victory over Belgium in the Nations League

Harry Maguire is the only centre-back who can be relatively comfortable with his spot but even his performances will suffer if he has to have ice-breaking sessions with his two partners on the edge of the 18-yard-box every game.

In better news for Southgate he will have been encouraged by some of the performances he has seen this week.

Conor Coady, who has vast experience in a back three with Wolves, was faultless against Wales and is likely to feature again at some point.

But with the likes of Joe Gomez, Eric Dier and Michael Keane all having chances to impress, Southgate might be a little concerned that a right-back in Kyle Walker was arguably the most impressive. 

Right-back Kyle Walker though impressed as part of a back three at Wembley on Sunday

Trippier for left-back?

England’s second biggest weakness is at left-back, where there is a dearth of options. 

Ben Chilwell is best suited to the role but should he be unavailable then Southgate doesn’t have much left to pick from.

Underlining this point has been his decision to experiment with right-back Kieran Trippier in the role. To the Atletico Madrid man’s credit it was his header having attacked a back-post cross that allowed Mount to score the winner against Belgium.

Bukayo Saka featured against Wales for his senior debut and while it almost certain to be the first of many England caps, he is untested at least from a defensive aspect against world-class opposition in the role.

If the Trippier experiment is persisted with, it automatically leaves England struggling on the left flank as defenders will know he will have to cut inside at some point rather than choose to attack bylines and cross with his weaker left foot. Best hope is that Chilwell stays fit.


Kieran Trippier (left) and Bukayo Saka (right)  look most likely to act as cover for Ben Chilwell

Chelsea star Chilwell is set to remain as first choice at left-wing back for Gareth Southgate




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