England must choose between pace and technique in their forward planning | Barney Ronay
Welcome to the month of living dangerously. At the end of the strangest, most fractured build-up to any modern tournament England’s footballers have at least avoided one familiar pitfall.
Too often this has been a tale of boredom and stale systems, of hotel-emptiness and simply waiting for things to start.
Sven-Göran Eriksson passed those endless tournament training sessions wandering around the practice pitch chatting with David Beckham. Right then. We’re playing 4-4-2. The team is the team. Now, David. Another turn?
At one point during the 2010 World Cup Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney were reduced to spending an evening in Rooney’s room watching the entire DVD recording of his wedding.
Fast-forward to the week-long prep for Euro 2020 and one thing seems clear. It won’t be boring. Six days away from their opening fixture England’s players, supporters and opponents still have no real idea of their starting team or indeed starting formation.
The manager will have a clearer view. But the alarming truth is that the chief question remains essentially unanswered. And right now England are perilously close to the strangest of outcomes, whereby their two most talented creative players, their two best keepers of the ball, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, are unable to find their way into the system.
Southgate maintains that he knows his best team, with one exception. But the attacking plan, whatever it is, will still have to be pulled out of the air without any sustained practice run.
The base formula still goes like this. And yes, it is a complex, ill-formatted equation, for complex, ill-formatted times. Right now England’s best attack = (Harry Kane) + (x + y), but only where Kane + (x + y) features the quality “pace”; and where if x = Foden then y cannot = Grealish.
This changes when Kane + (x+y) is fed into a 4-3-3 formation, which opens up a whole new set of variables. So far Southgate seems unwilling to go with the 4-3-3 against better teams in the absence of Harry Maguire. This may change for the Croatia game. It probably should.
So where are we with this? Who are the starters? There has until recently been an assumption the default option, x and y, are Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as the wide players. Both have a “man in possession” feel. Southgate and Kane both respond well to speed in attack.
Two things present themselves at this point. First, Southgate wants to play Mason Mount but won’t trust him as part of a two-man pivot, so Mount has probably now edged into that front three. Secondly Foden, Grealish and indeed Mount just seem to offer more, to be demonstrably better, more technical attacking footballers.
And look more closely and Southgate has pretty much moved on from this front three. The last time Kane, Rashford and Sterling started together was in the 6-0 win in Bulgaria two years ago, and before then on a run of games when England were settled on a 4-3-3.
More recently Southgate has tended to favour Kane, one of Sterling/Rashford, plus one other. In this equation Sterling and Rashford are now going for one spot. And Sterling will win that battle. He may have had a poor season – and when Sterling does bad he really does bad, a player for whom the ball is suddenly square. But Sterling also has 12 England goals and 10 assists since the World Cup.
Plus there is the Kane effect. Kane has scored in 15 games for England since 2017, only one of those when Sterling has not started. Sterling is his most regular assister. That chemistry has been a defining element in this team. Southgate will surely reach for it now.
Right now the final member of that front three is surely Mount, who is a wonderful footballer, who can score, create, press, cover, take set pieces.
A front five of Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson/Kalvin Phillips, Sterling, Mount and Kane is a good, high-end, hard-working front five. And yet it retains that familiar absence of ball-hogging technical mastery, of the ability to change the tempo of the game, to hold the ball in any kind of space, all of which are recurrent England tournament failings.
This England crop does have these qualities. In Foden it has an English midfield talent unlike any other in recent memory, and in Grealish an utterly fearless manipulator of the ball. And yet through caution, by covering for other possibilities, we have arrived at a scenario where neither can actually get in the XI.
Two things could yet derail this possibility. Southgate could simply get over his terror of a Maguire-less back four. This would allow Mount to be included in the central three, and free up a space for Foden or Grealish (narrator’s voice: “Foden”) up front. This is the most attractive outcome and one that may yet come to pass given some hints offered after the Romania game.
The other thing is events. Stuff happens. Multiple substitutes are allowed at these Euros. Other shapes and combinations will present themselves. Games will become broken, chemistry will spark. There is a strong possibility England may end up with a very different starting XI by the end.
And why not evolve this team on the hoof? There is a theory that Southgate became fixated on the wrong England victory, the wrong England template, that he was overly charmed by the second-half solidity against Belgium in October 2020, after which Southgate raved at length about defensive detail and “compact covering positions”.
England also needed an iffy penalty and a deflected shot against Belgium. And they have won other games well. The visceral, counterattacking 3-2 against Spain. Or how about the one that got away, the 4-0 against Iceland in November 2020, in which Southgate fielded a back three with Rice and Mount as the pivot, Bukayo Saka at wing-back and Kane, Grealish and Foden as the front three?
Iceland were poor opponents. But that England XI has never been seen since. Would they really be in a worse position if it were this victory Southgate had been taken with, if that more progressive team, closer to the Premier League champions in its balance, able to defend by keeping the ball, had been given a few more run-outs? Would anyone be looking forward to these Euros-of-desperation any less?
The real fear at this point is a slow start with Grealish and Foden, darlings of the crowd, unable to find a spot: managing the sympathies of a changeable, angsty English public will also be a factor at this tournament.