With one set wingback system, England reached the 2018 World Cup semi-finals in Russia three years ago.
There was no backup plan, and when things went wrong, as they did against Belgium and Croatia, Gareth Southgate had nowhere to turn.
In the interim, Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland have built a team capable of changing shape, confronting and perplexing any opponent.
England could have matched Denmark’s system with a back three and wingbacks on Wednesday night, as they did brilliantly against Germany, but Southgate chose to take the initiative and ask the Danes whether they could live with England’s more attacking style.
Gary Neville expressed his displeasure with the idea before kick-off, admitting it made him “nervous,” but Southgate was vindicated within minutes.
England’s back-four system is difficult to pin down at times, and it looks quite different with and without possession, but it’s essentially a lopsided 4-2-3-1 with Luke Shaw more forward than Kyle Walker, Declan Rice more conservative than Kalvin Phillips, and Raheem Sterling driving at the heart while Bukayo Saka sneaks around the flanks.
In Wembley, it was evident that the system was outnumbering Denmark in terms of attacking numbers.
With Shaw and Saka as England’s wingers, Mason Mount and Sterling as center strikers, and Harry Kane dropping in at No10 with Phillips in support, Rice scooped up the ball and looked forwards to see the Danish defense forced back.
Shaw’s forward runs served to occupy Stryger Larsen, the Danish right-wingback, freeing Rice to fill the left-sided space from where he directed possession spells and maintained pressure.
The only early issue occurred as Denmark built from the back and Larsen snuck in between Sterling, who was pressing high, and Shaw, who was defending.
Denmark’s central defender Simon Kjaer feed Larsen, and Shaw pressed too late; Denmark was out and in behind England’s defense in seconds, necessitating a Kyle Walker recovery run to avert the danger.
Another advantage of the back four was Walker’s role.
On a few of occasions, he used his speed from right-back to cover his centre-halves, but his speed out on the touchline was just as important, as he nullified Denmark’s left-wingback Joakim Maehle, one of the tournament’s star players.
England were able to outnumber their opponents in midfield because Denmark’s wingbacks were kept busy on defensive responsibilities, effectively forming a back five, and the game pattern was established: England smothered as Denmark was held down and sought to resist.
Denmark struggled to gain a foothold in open play, but their creative set-pieces caused England problems, and they eventually scored the game’s first goal.
The Danish set-pieces were rather traditional in their quarter-final versus Czech Republic, but they got imaginative at Wembley.
On corners, they pressed Jordan Pickford on the goal line, and they packed tightly before deep set-piece deliveries, which helped earn the free-kick from which Mikkel Damsgaard scored.
They most effectively built a mini-wall that shifted sideways to obscure Damsgaard’s stunning free-kick from Jordan Pickford’s view.
England’s first goal: Kane drops deep and Saka races past (sharemytactics) Despite the disappointment of losing a first tournament goal, England remained unfazed and adhered to their gameplan.
England’s most potent threat during the tournament has been on the left flank, but it was on the right that they dealt the most damage here, with two opportunities coming in short succession down that side.
Saka first grabbed the ball on the right touchline, where he spent the majority of the game, and raced forward before feeding a pass in behind Jannik Vestergaard, who was motionless.
Sterling blasted straight at Kasper Schmeichel after Kane grabbed the ball and crossed it for him.
The roles were then turned 45 seconds later: this time, Saka rushed in behind Vestergaard, and Kane dropped deep, swiveled, and quickly played him in.
Saka forced yet another own goal in a tournament of own goals.
If there belonged any doubt about Saka’s selection, he proved why he was on the team.
He makes runs in behind defenders more naturally than Jadon Sancho and, in especially, Jack Grealish, who like the ball to their feet, and it’s another another proof of the squad’s strength and tactical flexibility that Southgate has been able to select specific weapons for specific opponents.
Saka’s quickness and dexterity could be important in injuring Italy’s 36-year-old left centre-back Georginio Chiellini and stand-in left-back Emerson Palmieri in Sunday’s final.
In extra time, Southgate switched formations at half-time.
Grealish was replaced by Kieran Trippier, and England moved to a three-man defense.
It probably didn’t affect the outcome because Denmark was very exhausted, but it was a final tactical flourish, possibly only to show that he could.
Three years ago in Russia, England was locked in a single formation.
They’ve been able to change their shape and personalities according on the difficulty, and this has been a crucial factor in their ability to overcome every challenge thus far.