Get back to Gareth Southgate basics
The biggest thing Gareth Southgate has to learn from the last four games is to stick to his principles.
He has proven stubborn and steadfast throughout his reign, and that has been a positive in the main with the unparalleled noise around the England manager’s job.
It failed him across 10 miserable days of the Nations League this month. He said his pragmatism to prioritize rotation, which has led to more questionable tactical decisions.
The idea was to protect his players after a long season but the overarching result has been a public backlash the like of which Southgate has managed to avoid over the last six years.
Luckily, he has never taken outside input too seriously.
Remember him hinting to reporters they were either with England or against them during the World Cup? Southgate is a mild-mannered man but he is, normally, steadfast in his beliefs.
My one hope is that this chastening experience hasn’t hit the growing confidence he has worked so hard to build too much, because Southgate operating on his terms, picking sometimes unfancied players and playing a style to suit has served him and England very well to date.
We have become accustomed to England turning up for an international break looking capable and well-drilled with reasonable, sometimes exciting football thrown in, and more often than not beating the teams in front of them.
It’s what has made this Nations League break all the more perplexing. But also provides the reassurance that normal service will soon be resumed.
This far into Gareth Southgate’s tenure, England should be further along in their evolution. It would not be prudent to judge on individual results – especially one as bad as Hungary – but the fallout from that woeful performance is relevant. It speaks to a lack of identity under Southgate.
That isn’t to say every display has been devoid of ideology, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Southgate’s playing philosophy is. You can’t argue with recent tournament success – although it still feels as if an opportunity was missed at last summer’s Euros. The harsh reality is that England were (and continue to be) too cautious – the approach was not brave enough. And not for the first time, Southgate was too slow or unwilling to gamble on changes.
Is it unfair to say Southgate’s achievements – which warrant merit – look better against a backdrop of consistently underachieving managers? Perhaps.
England’s squad is packed full of young, vibrant, attacking talent, and while that doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, the right mix of personnel should at least mean more goals. More excitement. Bigger threat.
There is no question Southgate should lead England to the Qatar World Cup. He has more than earned that right. But there is an expectation associated with England’s chances now, which must be lived up to. England fans have had a taste of tournament success and they are hungry for more. The relationship between the England team and its supporters peaked last summer and Southgate – integral to that process – must ensure that is maintained.
Certainly, he needs to be bolder in his selection and style. Of course there is also a need to strike the right balance, but England have such an abundance of strength in forward areas – creative talent should be used to better effect. Rarely does the quality of opposition call for a back seven, including two holding midfielders, for example.
He’s whetted the appetite, now he needs to deliver.
Embrace tournament mode from September
Whether you saw England’s struggles in these Nations League games as an alarming warning about their prospects at the World Cup and trajectory under Gareth Southgate or merely the result of physical and mental fatigue at the end of a long season taking its toll on the performances of mix -and-match line-ups, the time for experimentation is over.
When Southgate is reunited with his squad in September for their final two Nations League group games – and final two warm-ups before the World Cup – it will be time to go into tournament mode.
That trip to the San Siro to face Italy and the clash with Germany at Wembley a few days later will provide an ideal acid test ahead of the World Cup. Southgate needs to go with his strongest XI, in his preferred formation, and with a group mentality similar to the one they will have in Qatar. Perhaps the threat of Nations League relegation will also add extra competitive edge.
Good results and performances in those matches will shift the mood again and give this England team the platform to attack their real objective this season.
After rotating players, tweaking formations and trying different combinations Southgate must now settle on his World Cup plan and, regardless of his critics, back his approach to deliver another positive major tournament display, just as he has before.
It’s time to use a natural left-back
The problem for Southgate is the current football schedule. Players are exhausted from this chaotic, Covid-affected season and the winter World Cup throws an additional spanner in the works.
There are now no October or November international breaks meaning the June Nations League matches – along with the two games in September – are the last opportunities Southgate has to experiment on the pitch.
And one of the areas Southgate tested this month was down the left. James Justin, Kieran Trippier, Bukayo Saka and Reece James were all used in the left full-back or wing-back role this month – but none of them particularly impressed going forwards.
The left flank has become a particularly fruitful avenue in recent years. For example, most of their goals from Euro 2020 came from that area, with Luke Shaw particularly impressive last summer.
Both Shaw and back-up Ben Chilwell have been injured in recent weeks – hence their absence this month – but surely their success shows that a left-sided option in that position is what Southgate should be targeting – not a series of natural right-backs or attackers.
Newcastle’s Matt Targett and West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell – two players who fit the England manager’s mold as in-form and adept from set-pieces – were options this summer that Southgate could have turned to, but didn’t.
If Shaw and Chilwell continue to struggle with fitness, then surely one of those two should be given a chance before Qatar.
Return to three at the back
In his six-year tenure, Southgate has switched between using three at the back, as he did with great success at the 2018 World Cup and in certain games at last summer’s Euros, such as against Germany and Italy, and a four-man backline .
The latter was largely used in England’s successful qualification campaigns during that period, when the quality of opposition was generally inferior to teams faced in the actual tournaments, but also in this Nations League against the likes of Germany, Italy and in Tuesday night’s thrashing to Hungary .
Even when taking into account the understandable change of personnel, given we are now just five months away from the World Cup, including starts in central defense for Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori, four at the back did not work in those recent clashes.
England looked more vulnerable at the back than at any previous time under Southgate in Munich and in both fixtures at Molineux, even with a two-man shield of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips operating in front of them against Germany and Hungary.
And while going with three centre-backs means one less attacking spot in his starting XI, it does allow Southgate to play his wing-backs, a real strength of the side going forward and a key to returning England to something of their former selves.
More importantly, however, the team’s defensive shape looks more balanced and as we now know, Southgate wants that back door shut, and firmly too, before allowing his forward-thinking players to shine up front.
England must strike right midfield balance
It is Southgate’s tactics that have come into question, but it has been a lack of quality in midfield that has checked progress. In the biggest of games under Southgate, England have lost them based on them being ground down by superior opponents in the middle third.
It was the case in the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia, the 2019 Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands and the Euro 2020 final against Italy.
England tried to nullify the growing influence of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Rakitic by adding Eric Dier alongside Jordan Henderson in midfield – but only in extra-time. Reputation was restored in defeat after past embarrassments, but this was a mismatch.
Kalvin Phillips was completely isolated against Hungary on Tuesday night with Jude Bellingham and Conor Gallagher seemingly told to play their own game. It brought flashbacks of that night in Moscow. Southgate needs to show he is learning from past mistakes.
The same could be said when Fabian Delph was used against Frenkie de Jong in the Nations League semi-finals. Then in last summer’s final, Jorginho and Marco Verratti kept the ball before the introduction of Manuel Locatelli turned the screw on England.
Henderson is the only English midfielder in a traditional top-six Premier League side, and he is only semi-regular. Southgate can only work with those at his disposal.
The simple truth is this England are still on a journey. Southgate 1.0 is not at its final destination – and the hope is that his side will peak in Doha this winter. This was still one of the youngest squads at last summer’s European Championship finals – with an average age of 24.8 years, only behind Spain and Turkey.
Going one step further by reaching a World Cup final, by whatever means, has become a realistic target under Southgate; something which couldn’t be said under many of his predecessors since Sir Bobby Robson, and certainly not achieved since Sir Alf Ramsay.
It is the most coveted job in English football and not even this Nations League nightmare in June warrants a free ride, but Southgate will have impressed as much on his players. This won’t have been a wasted camp.