England’s Inconsistent Performance Against Nigeria Highlights Problems With 3-5-2 Formation

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England defeated Nigeria in their final fixture at Wembley before the World Cup on Saturday evening. It was a tale of two halves – as is usually the case in friendly fixtures – but the performance should instil some confidence ahead of the Three Lions’ opening game to Tunisia. 

The encouraging signs were there to enjoy, predominantly, in the first half, when England’s 3-5-2 formation (or 5-3-2) had the better of Nigeria’s 4-4-2. 

Ashley Young and Kieran Tripper were offering the width down the wings, Eric Dier the steel in midfield, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard the creativity, while Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling formed an effective duo in attack. 

England took the lead in the seventh minute through Gary Cahill, who thumped Ashley Young’s corner past Uzoho. The home side went on to dominate the game and the pace and movement shown in and around the final third was impressive. Kane did eventually grab a deserved second goal and England went into half-time with a two-goal lead. 

Nigeria made a host of substitutes at the start of the second half and matched England’s formation. The changes paid off and the Super Eagles halved the deficit when Alex Iwobi cooly slotted past Jordan Pickford. It was the first time Southgate’s backline had been put under pressure, and the result was somewhat worrying. 

Iwobi had found himself completely unmarked 15 yards out. England’s midfield – in this case Dele Alli – had failed to pick him up. Nigeria would continue to press and England’s midfield continued to struggle.

On more than one occasion the Nigerian midfield, which had been missing for much of the first half, were allowed to run at the England backline, which was getting little help from the midfield. Dier, the only defensive-minded midfielder in Southgate’s starting lineup, was, understandably, struggling. 

The England boss could have opted to bring on a more defensively-minded midfielder for Lingard or Alli, but that would have no doubt quelled the Three Lions’ own attacking threat. In two previous friendlies against Germany and Brazil, Southgate opted to start two defensive midfielders in Eric Dier and Jake Livermore. The Three Lions’ defence looked solid in both games and recorded two clean sheets, but the side didn’t look particularly threatening going forward. 

The balance between the attacking side and defensive side of England is still lacking. To achieve that balance, and especially in a 3-5-2 formation, you need midfielders who are efficient at both ends of the pitch, a link between the defence and attack – a Mousa Dembele, for example. England don’t really have that sort of player in the squad, however.  

Nigeria’s threat did cool down as the half progressed and England did run out – just about – deserved winners, but the fragilities of the 3-5-2, and England’s midfield, were laid bare.

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