Sky Sports Football's team of writers argue who Gareth Southgate should select in attack alongside Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, and explore the tactical changes England could make for Wednesday's Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark
Wednesday 7 July 2021 23:10, UK
Raheem Sterling has been England's standout player at Euro 2020, Harry Kane is back among the goals at the right time and has the Golden Boot in sight.
Two thirds of England's three-pronged attack that will be tasked with overcoming Denmark in the semi-finals at Euro 2020 at Wembley on Wednesday looked nailed on, but what about the third and final spot?
Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford ,Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho have all been deployed in attack so far this tournament but with Gareth Southgate notoriously keeping the nation guessing with his line-ups, don't put it past the England manager to spring another surprise.
Ahead of England's bid to reach a first major tournament final in 55 years, Sky Sports Football's team of writers examine the options at Southgate's disposal ahead of the showdown with Denmark…
Discussions over England team selection have never been as tepid as they are now, with so many strong 'like-for-like' options on the substitutes' bench.
How many England fans would have really strong objections if it were Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden or Marcus Rashford starting in a wide attacking position on Wednesday, for example? It could be argued none of those players weakens the overall team package.
Raheem Sterling and Sancho regularly swapped wings at the Stadio Olimpico, and we've seen Kalvin Phillips at various times in the tournament be given licence to roam further forward from his holding midfield role, as he did in earning an assist for Sterling's opening goal of the tournament against Croatia.
Saka, used by Arsenal in any position on the left flank, started on the right wing for England against Germany, and at one point in the second half found, himself in the centre-back role as he tracked back to cut out a German counter-attack.
Kieran Trippier has played left-back and Kane has often dropped deeper into a No 10 role in games when he's felt it more important to link up play, rather than stay up top as a focal point of the attack. For the football purist, all of this has joyous echoes of the 'total football' played by Johan Cruyff's Netherlands in the 1970s, where starting positions were temporary, and every player could fill in for a team-mate elsewhere on the pitch.
For Gareth Southgate, it's a pragmatic rather than a philosophical approach. He expects every player to offer a role defensively in the team, and someone may be asked to play out of position if their individual attributes are specifically suited to exploit a weakness, or to nullify a strength, in the opposition.
That's why Sancho got his first start in tournament football against Ukraine. Southgate wanted to stretch their defence with a right-footed attacker on the right wing, and he wanted someone with pace and the ability to commit Ukraine's defenders - Sancho was the perfect fit.
The early indications are that Southgate will resist the persistent clamour for Jack Grealish to start against Denmark, instead keeping him as the '60-minute man' to come on if England are chasing a goal. Rather, England's boss is likely to stand strong behind Mason Mount, who has again been consistently impressive throughout the tournament in the more creative central midfield role.
Predicting Southgate's starting XI has proven to be the impossible task at this tournament. Not a game has gone by without a surprise selection featuring. Jadon Sancho was the latest curve ball, coming out of the wilderness to start the quarter-final win over Ukraine.
He impressed too, with some nice link play from the right of the front three. But Saka is fit again. And what about Southgate's full-time embrace of Grealish, when he appeared to have a message of 'now you have a role to play at Wembley' for the fan favourite? Don't forget Rashford and Foden, either!
With so many attacking options at his disposal, it's not a surprise Southgate's line-up is so hard to call but against Denmark there is an argument for returning to a back three and a player proven at bringing midfield and attack together - which you need in that set-up - is Mount.
He's a favourite of Southgate's and for good reasons: hard running, precise pressing, creativity and a knack of taking up dangerous positions where, more often than not, he finds the net. Service and support is what Sterling and Harry Kane need in a 3-4-3 and Mount - who would come inside from the flanks to take up a No10 role at times - can provide both of those elements.
Saka's emergence was one of the sparks that got England's tournament up and running and his claims to start against Denmark - now he's fully fit - will be difficult for Southgate to ignore.
Thrown into the spotlight in the final group game against Czech Republic, Saka's bravery on the ball, his energy and his direct style was eye-catching, and it breathed new life into England's attacking play during the 1-0 victory. He called it 'the biggest night of his career' so far, but bigger tests were to come as he kept his place for the last-16 showdown with Germany at Wembley.
How would the 19-year-old handle the step up in class of the opponents and the big occasion at Wembley? He was totally unfazed, putting in another excellent performance as England created history, running out 2-0 winners against Joachim Low's side.
He sustained a knock in training ahead of England's emphatic 4-0 quarter-final win over Ukraine and that allowed Jadon Sancho the opportunity to impress, but after being declared fit, it's time for Saka to be unleashed once again.
His pace and trickery can cause Denmark's three-man defence plenty of problems, just as it did Germany's back three. Going the other way, he also has the defensive game and discipline to be able to help deal with the threat of Joakim Maehle, who has been extremely influential in the left-wing back role for Denmark.
This is another huge Wembley occasion and Saka has already shown he can handle the pressure. He deserves another chance to dazzle as England go in search of yet more history.
The widespread confusion, particularly among those who regularly watch Bundesliga football, as to why Sancho had only six minutes of football under his belt at Euro 2020 before England's quarter-final with Ukraine was overwhelmingly justified by the winger's performance in Rome.
Harry Kane and Luke Shaw rightfully earned the plaudits for their starring roles as England ran riot in the Italian capital, but Sancho's first start at this summer's tournament spoke volumes of the 21-year-old's ability and temperament, and left him hard to ignore for the semi-final showdown with Denmark.
Sancho had to juggle the frustration of barely featuring at Euro 2020 with the excitement and uncertainty of his impending transfer from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United, all of which made the manner in which he tormented the Ukrainian defence all the more impressive.
Despite England's biggest ever victory in a knockout game at a major tournament, Southgate's risk-averse approach continues to draw criticism. England supporters want the shackles taken off their team.
By persisting with Sancho against the Danes, the England boss could stick with the core of players who have got England to this stage so assuredly, but also introduce the attacking flare to propel the Three Lions into the final.
England's victory against Germany in the last 16 was a historic evening, but one of the most pleasing aspects was the brilliance of Saka. He had already been a breath of fresh air against the Czech Republic, and his fearlessness during one of the biggest football rivalries was astounding.
He carried Arsenal for much of the 2020/21 season and given his chance, he proved why Gunners fans love him so much. His direct runs can bamboozle even the most experienced of defences - just ask Mats Hummels and Antonio Rudiger.
It was a shame he missed out against Ukraine with a knock, but it will have given Saka the chance to recuperate. He has proven that he can handle the pressure of a major international tournament and Southgate can rely on the Arsenal midfielder to bring the spark in England's attack.
He came out on top against Germany's back three, and you'd back him to do the same against a similar Danish system. His speed and defensive capabilities will also help match up against the Denmark wing-backs too as England look to stifle more threats down the channels.
Saka has already proven he can step up and perform under pressure, and I'm backing him to do so again in Wednesday's semi-final.
Southgate faces an unenviable task when choosing who plays in England's attack. There is no line-up to satisfy everyone. Some players will feel hard done by; many fans will feel disappointed.
But I can't see him leaving out a fit and available Mount and given how I'd like him to set up his team for this game - more on that below - the Chelsea man is my pick to join Sterling and Kane in the front three.
It means leaving Sancho, Grealish and the rest on the bench, but Mount is simply too important to this side to play a supporting role.
He is instrumental to Southgate's pressing game and offers smart distribution too - his 90 per cent pass completion rate at this tournament has helped to bridge England's midfield and attack.
Mount sets the tempo in and out of possession. He provides creativity and goal threat and has earned Southgate's trust. Without him floating between the lines, England's fluency would suffer.
England need to play the occasion, as well as the opponent. The desire for flat-out entertainment has waned as Southgate's pragmatic approach brings more success, and nullifying Denmark's strengths while playing to England's own makes sense.
England should match Denmark's back three with wing backs - so Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire in the middle, with Trippier right and Shaw left.
Slightly overlooked in the elation of beating Germany was the effectiveness in which England shut off wing-backs Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens. It worked gloriously well, and I don't know why the approach for Maehle and Jens Styger should be any different.
Denmark love to cross, so shut that avenue off and half the battle is won.
That clearly has a knock-on effect in forward areas; Mount should keep his place, but in more of a No 10 role. I have little doubt Grealish will play a big part in this game, but from the bench.
Forget the "we should focus on ourselves, not them" narrative. This is a major tournament semi-final, and Denmark haven't got here by chance. England have more quality, and should prevail, but ignorance towards the opponent has stung them before.
Sancho took his opportunity to impress in Rome, but Saka is back available after missing the quarter-final with a minor injury. Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand has used a natural right-footer at left wing-back, Maehle, and Southgate could set up to minimise his impact.
Foden started the opening two group games but was absent against the Czech Republic with him walking the suspension tightrope and was unused against Ukraine. Should the Manchester City man be drafted back in, he will be fresh and eager to seize his opportunity.
I don't see him reverting to a back three in the same way he matched up with Germany in the last 16. He will look to pin back Maehle, and Saka offers both an attacking threat and the ability to track back.
Southgate will be aware of how Denmark faded against the Czechs and have conceded all five of their goals in the second half of matches in the tournament. Having the likes of Foden, Grealish and Sancho in reserve could prove a shrewd move.
Southgate has usually deployed Sterling, Grealish or Rashford down the left and used Foden, Sancho or Saka down the right. However, the left-sided dominance has also been boosted by Shaw's attacking output.
Kane and Sterling are sure-starters in England's attack, which, in a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 system, leaves only one place up for grabs. However, England overcame a resolute Czech Republic side by matching them in a 4-2-3-1 - a formation which creates a No 10 role.
In that game, Grealish occupied the roaming role and teed up Sterling for England's winning goal and frequently interchanged with the City winger with devastating effect.
However, Mount was unavailable in that fixture due to Covid protocols and would almost certainly be a sure-starter, which might suggest Foden, Sancho or Saka could get the nod down the right channel.
The system Southgate deploys on Wednesday depends on whether he matches the Danes with five at the back, as he did against Germany, or takes an offensive stance, as he did against Ukraine - when seven outfield players averaged in the opposition half.
However, there were glimpses the latter approach could prove more effective against the Danes after Hjulmand's side were left exposed on numerous occasions during their 2-1 win over the Czechs - areas ripe for England's attacking force to exploit.
Denmark play a high line, while only Italy and Spain average more shots per game - but maintaining that style against an England side on the front foot would surely be costly. Therefore, I'd stick with the Ukraine model: a 4-2-3-1 and no changes to the starting XI.
England supporters are struggling to find disagreement over what is the team's best formation. Southgate opted for three centre-backs to face Germany. Against Ukraine, England started with a 4-2-3-1 set-up.
But shortly before half-time, with their opponents gaining some momentum in possession, captain Kane was seen to mouth to his team-mates "Shall we go 4-4-2 without the ball?" That emphasises just how fluid England's set-up has been during games in this tournament - and how the senior players have had a big role to play in tactical decisions.
It also looks probable England will stick with a back four on Wednesday night, rather than switch to three centre backs to match up Denmark's expected formation. When England did that in the 2-0 win against Germany, it was specifically designed to counter the threat posed by their two rampaging wing backs - Kimmich and Gosens. Denmark's full-backs Maehle and Jens Stryger Larsen don't pose the same sort of potent threat.
It's more likely that Southgate will go with a flat four on this occasion, to allow him an extra creative player in the centre of midfield - a slot that will almost certainly again be filled by Mount.
England's tactical flexibility is a major asset at this tournament and it's time for Southgate's side to flex to the next challenge and match up Denmark's 3-4-3 on Wednesday.
The Danes can be breath-taking on the flanks, with the standout Maehle a real threat down the left and forwards Martin Braithwaite and Mikkel Damsgaard drifting into wide positions, from where Denmark have sent in 113 cross (England have made 56).
Trippier and Shaw can shut down those avenues and give Denmark something to think about going the other way, while a back three of Walker, Stones, and Maguire - protected by Declan Rice and Phillips - will limit a side who have had twice as many shots as England in this tournament.
With that solid base behind them, England's confidence-filled attackers can do damage at the other end. England failed to score in two Nations League matches against Denmark at the start of the season just gone, but Mount was only denied by a superb Kasper Schmeichel save and will add to the attacking thrust of Sterling and back-in-form Kane. Then there's the firepower from the bench - Grealish, Saka, Sancho, Rashford and more - who can exploit spaces in the final stages.
England (3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Phillips, Rice, Shaw; Mount, Sterling, Kane.
Maehle has already had a mention but alongside Jens Stryger Larsen and Daniel Wass, who have both featured wide on the right, Denmark's wing backs have been a key area of strength for Hjulmand's side during their run to the semi-finals.
After starting the tournament with a back four, Hjulmand switched to a back three to face Belgium, and after a much-improved performance against Roberto Martinez's side, they haven't looked back.
Could that tempt Gareth Southgate to revert to the back three that was so successful against Germany?
On that occasion, England matched up against Germany and it proved a masterstroke, nullifying the threat of wing backs Kimmich and Gosens.
I just wonder, with so much at stake for England and Denmark's threat there for all to see, could pragmatism once again be England's way?
England (3-4-3): Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Phillips, Rice, Shaw; Saka, Sterling, Kane
One of England's strengths this summer has been the ability to tweak systems, particularly in defence. A back four reigned in the group stages, but the switch to a back three against Germany proved to be the right choice.
Having had a tried and tested method, you would expect Southgate to do the same against wing-backs that have been so vital for Denmark.
Jens Stryger Larsen was the Danes secret to success in their quarter-final against the Czech Republic. His corner was nodded home by Thomas Delaney for the opener, and kept sending in dangerous crosses on the right. Unsurprisingly, Maehle nabbed the other, demonstrating just how important they are.
Germany's wing-backs barely had a look in during the last-16 tie, having been so praised after a 4-2 win against Portugal, and a similar system will be vital to smother the danger of Denmark's wing-backs here.
England (3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Phillips, Rice, Shaw; Saka, Sterling, Kane.
Southgate has shown his strength of character, resisting the nationwide clamour for Grealish to start in the early group games, and the England head coach has earned the trust of his squad and supporters.
Southgate hasn't picked an unchanged team since the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia - a run of 35 games - so don't be surprised if he twists again. That said, this is the most stable period of his tenure. It has been a serene three weeks, free from fresh injuries or disciplinary concerns.
Southgate has utilised his squad with only three outfield players - Ben Chilwell, Conor Coady and Ben White - yet to feature in a single minute. I don't see that changing here, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jordan Henderson is handed his first start in midfield.
There is still a rawness to Phillips at international level, so this could be the right time for the Liverpool captain's experience up against Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Thomas Delaney. Southgate will set up to finish strongly, in the same way he did against Germany.
He will remember how his substitutions in the 2-1 defeat to Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals three years ago didn't shift the momentum, but the impact of those coming off the bench at this Euros reflects the team cohesion he has fostered. The ability to make five changes suits nations with superior squad depth and should again play in England's favour.
England (4-2-3-1): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Rice, Henderson; Saka, Mount, Sterling; Kane.
After Saturday's 4-0 thrashing of Ukraine, the temptation is to persist with the same system and field two wide players and a No 10 in support of Harry Kane.
But Denmark are a far stronger opponent than Andriy Shevchenko's side and the most dangerous players in their 3-4-2-1 system are the wing-backs. Maehle has been one of the stars of the tournament on the left, while Jens Styger Larsen has hit form on the right.
They set up a goal each in Denmark's 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals while Maehle has also scored two at the tournament himself. The 24-year-old has in fact had as many shots as Kane so far, underlining his attacking threat.
With Braithwaite and the talented Damsgaard also drifting into wide areas, England will need to respond accordingly.
A back four would give Denmark too much space in the parts of the pitch where they are most dangerous. As against Germany, a back three makes far more sense. It means sacrificing an attacking player, but England will be sturdier at the back and they will still have enough to win.
England (3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Phillips, Rice, Shaw; Mount, Sterling, Kane.
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In the latest Sky Sports Football Euros podcast, Peter Smith is joined by Ben Ransom, Nick Wright and Gerard Brand to preview England's Euro 2020 semi-final with Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday.
Will Gareth Southgate go to a back three? What threats to Denmark pose on England's watertight defence? What can England learn from October's Nations League defeat against the Danes? And has Raheem Sterling been the overall player of the tournament so far?
Plus, we preview the other semi-final as Italy face Spain on Tuesday night at Wembley.
Listen and subscribe on your podcast provider here
Predict what unfolds when England host Denmark to win £5,000 for free. Entries by 8pm Wednesday.
Predict what unfolds when England host Denmark to win £5,000 for free. Entries by 8pm Wednesday.