Gareth Southgate’s solid England risk being caught behind wave of history | Jonathan Wilson
The broken glass has been cleared. Wembley Way is no longer sticky underfoot. As the sense of shame and disappointment fades, and the knee-zjerk panaceas melt away, it is perhaps worth reflecting that Euro 2020, however disgracefully it ended, was one of the great tournaments, perhaps the best since Euro 2000, and asking what that might mean for next year’s World Cup and beyond.
There was a long period in which international football represented the pinnacle of the game; that was where you saw the greatest concentration of the best players. Then in the late 70s, as coordinated systems of pressing became more widespread and time spent on the training ground developing mutual understanding became increasingly important, the club game took over. Tactically speaking at least, international football could be seen to lag a few years behind. More recently, international and club football have felt like different forms of the same sport, as remote from each other in strategy and feel as limited-overs and Test cricket.
Caution pre-dominated. Without the time to establish cohesive patterns, either of pressing or attacking play, international coaches tended to prefer something more straightforward: build a defensive block and hope the creative players could conjure something to take advantage of a clean sheet.
That is how Portugal won the Euros in 2016 and France the World Cup in 2018 – the two games in which they scored four in the tournament the result either of brilliance from their opponents or defensive errors that forced them to attack, and so offered a tantalising glimpse of the team they could have been had Didier Deschamps not been determined his side should take his own cussed image. Even Spain in 2010 and 2012 and Germany in 2014 were less exuberant versions of Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
In that light it is significant that the most striking general tactical trend at these Euros was the use of wing-backs. England, Denmark, Switzerland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Belgium, six of the eight quarter-finalists, all at some point set up with a back three.
After the 1994 World Cup, Jack Charlton, then manager of the Republic of Ireland, noted how full-back had become the most important position on the field tactically. In the club game, they have become increasingly attacking, to the point that they are often judged less by their defensive qualities than by their ability to beat a man and deliver a cross.
But the instinctive caution of national coaches means they often prefer their full-backs to stay a little deeper, which was, of course, what led to the pre-tournament debate in England about Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion. That has a knock-on effect further up the pitch, removing the additional angle of attack offered by an aggressive full-back, and denying wide forwards a player running beyond them to draw a defender away. The result is that international attacks can often seem static.
How, then, can attacking full-backs be introduced without sacrificing the security so important to national coaches? The obvious way is to add an additional central defender, liberating the full-backs as wing-backs and allowing the sort of breadth of attack that brought England their goal in the final.
But still, it is creating solidity that dominates the thinking at major tournaments, and that guided Gareth Southgate’s approach. He spoke repeatedly about the research he had done into the successes of Portugal and France. He recognised, as few England coaches have, that the group stages are of only peripheral concern.
They are broadly to be negotiated and no more; the capacity to rack up big scores against mid-ranking opposition has little bearing on whether a team can then beat genuine contenders for the title. And this is one of the great problems of trying to analyse international football: in each four-year cycle, even the very best sides probably play only half a dozen games that really matter, whereas an elite Premier League manager in that time could play 10 times as many.
Southgate’s pragmatism is perhaps his greatest strength as a coach, and helps explain why he has (including penalty shootouts) achieved five wins in knockout games at major tournaments, two more than any other England manager. He has improved the atmosphere around the squad, made them more tactically flexible and for long periods had his side exercise the sort of control that would have been unthinkable for previous England teams.
There is a starlessness about England that fits with the general trend: modern football is about the system and the unit and if the most gifted cannot apply themselves to that, there are problems – as France and Portugal found. It is a measure of how far the South American game has slipped behind Europe (13 semi-finalists to three in the past four World Cups) that the Copa América final was billed as a battle between Lionel Messi and Neymar.
England were behind for only nine minutes in the whole Euros. Had Marcus Rashford’s penalty gone four inches to the right they would probably have won. The tournament for them was, by any reasonable assessment, a success. But there are two concerns. First, that Southgate can still seem slow to react in games. His blueprints seem good, but he perhaps lacks the capacity to smell a game and act accordingly if the play deviates from the plan. In that respect, the similarity between the World Cup semi-final and the Euros final was clear.
But perhaps more concerning is the example set by Italy and Spain, the two teams who played 4-3-3 throughout, the two teams with coaches who have enjoyed significant club success. Both have a mandate to enact radical change, Roberto Mancini to implement a fluid pressing game and Luis Enrique to give Spain greater verticality. Both proved it is possible to instil something approaching a club cohesiveness even at national level.
There were isolated hints of that in Russia. It’s a high-risk strategy, and Italy more than once were fortunate they had traditional defensive qualities to fall back upon, but one with great potential rewards. For Southgate the danger is that by researching the past so thoroughly, he ends up fighting the last war, and being caught behind the wave of history.