Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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Bukayo Saka is England's most important player against Gakpo, Mbappe, and Nico Williams

Bukayo Saka is England’s most important player because of his complex role out of possession, a role made at the start of the tournament to stop left-wingers like Cody Gakpo for the Netherlands, Kylian Mbappe for France, or Nico Williams for Spain.

Figure 1.1 - Bukayo Saka drops back to move in line with Kieran Trippier when Switzerland win back possession.

Gareth Southgate mentioned that he gave Bukayo Saka “very complex instructions” on “how to defend and track back.” He wasn’t lying. The relationship between Bukayo Saka and right-back Kyle Walker is important.

When England loses the ball, Bukayo Saka drops back to move in line with left-back Kieran Trippier. Depending on where the ball is, that would place Saka on the outside or inside of Kyle Walker.

Figure 2.1 - Bukayo Saka tracks the run in the half-space and then wins a tackle once Switzerland attempts to play past England's initial press.

When they counter-press, Bukayo Saka makes it seem like he will be the one responsible for applying pressure to the opposition’s left-back, but he is always looking over his shoulder behind him to see if anyone is making a run ahead of Kyle Walker.

If someone does make a run through the half-space ahead of Walker, Saka then tracks them closely wherever they move infield ahead of the center-backs. This allows Walker to stay wide and mark the opponent’s left-winger. Today that is Ruben Vargas; next that will be Cody Gakpo; and in the final that will be either Kylian Mbappe or Nico Williams.

If the ball is played behind England’s initial press into the half-space, Saka will jump to tackle.

Figure 3.1 - Bukayo Saka tracks the run inside of Kyle Walker.

Tracking the run inside of Walker is important because Walker needs to fully focus on the one-on-one on the wing. Saka has the half-space, and John Stones has the space behind Walker. Walker can have full tunnel vision on the winger. Then a midfielder, normally Phil Foden against Switzerland, can come over to counter any attempted overload by the opponent.

The midfielder moving over will become important when they face the Netherlands, France, or Spain because of the threat of overlapping or underlapping fullbacks Nathan Ake, Theo Hernandez, or Marc Cucurella. Bukayo Saka will be responsible for tracking the fullback, leaving Walker to mark the winger.

Figure 4.1 - Kyle Walker moves infield and Bukayo Saka stays wide to mark Switzerland's left-winger.

This is the portion that makes the role key. If Kyle Walker decides to shift over to the center of the pitch, Saka then stays wide to mark the opponent’s left-wing. Someone must always be marking the left-wing.

This role, which requires Saka to position himself in the counter-press to not allow the opposition space to work the ball down the left-wing while scanning and tracking runs in the half-space, mixed with coordinating movement with Walker to always have the left-winger and fullback marked, is indeed complex.

Gareth Southgate spoke to BBC 5 Live before the tournament started about making changes:

You are never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad as people might think. You are normally five percent away from where you need to be. There is a risk you rip things up and you then don’t have foundations to build on.

You can understand why England would be opposed to making whole-scale changes in the middle of the tournament. They have tailored this role to stop France, Spain, and the Netherlands. This complex relationship between Walker and Saka needs time so they can build a rhythm. Any change would disrupt that rhythm because they’d have to adjust the way they defend to accommodate that change. Their plan has flaws but at least they have a plan.

This might be why they wanted someone like Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right to help overload the right, and why a ball-winner like Conor Gallagher was chosen to replace Alexander-Arnold when he lost his spot, but I think Phil Foden or Kobbie Mainoo are sufficient enough cover in defense.

Match: England 1-1 (2-1) Switzerland, 7 July 2024

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