“I’m determined to give everything I have to give the country a team that they’re proud of and one that they’re going to enjoy watching play and develop.”
Gareth Southgate there, upon being appointed as England coach on a permanent basis. Barely ten months on, it seems Southgate’s initial optimism has given way to his natural pragmatism.
England’s qualification for next summer’s World Cup and the wins that secured it left Southgate, in his own words, “a bit flat”. That dour outlook was reflected in the comments that immediately followed, when the coach told anyone who might want to know exactly how England will be playing at the World Cup.
“I think three at the back is what we ought to do. I think we have got to focus on a system and really try to hone it, work on it, improve it,” he said, having relied upon 4-2-3-1 for the vast majority of the qualifying campaign.
If Southgate is firmly wedded to a three-man defence, then why wait until the last qualifier to try in earnest? Surely Group F, with almost a guarantee of qualification, offered sufficient opportunities during the nine matches presided over by Southgate to implement his philosophy?
But this was not part of Southgate’s plan, if indeed there ever was one. After almost a year coaching this team, and four years previously around the England set-up, Southgate has now realised that the players cannot meet his expectations.
More puzzling than the time it has taken him to reach such a conclusion is the fact that Southgate has chosen now to broadcast to the world how he plans to compensate for England’s lack of technical nous.
Detailing why he now believes a three-man defence is “a better option”, Southgate admitted: “At the moment we turn the ball over too much and when we turn it over, we split into two centre-backs, we’re wide open. We were still open against Lithuania with three, so it would be a benefit if we didn’t keep turning the ball over.
“I think it gives us good stability and it gives easier solutions for our midfield players as well.”
The midfielders, who Southgate feels needs “easier solutions”, are clearly where the coach feels England will let themselves down. With a back four and two holding midfielders, the onus is on the pair in midfield to find ways of servicing the danger men ahead. But Southgate – like the rest of us – sees players who lack the vision, courage, variety and temperament required, especially in Jack Wilshere’s persistent absence.
So Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson will keep their places, even if they can’t keep the ball – at least not when they are facing the opposition goal. The answer, as Southgate has implied to everyone, is to simply bypass them. England’s opponents now know that their threat will come from wing-backs or, whisper it quietly, the long ball.
Like Aidy Bothroyd telling his Under-21s this week that “we are not here to do tricks and fanny around”, none of this is very ‘England DNA’ is it? Actually, in terms of our characteristics as a nation, it probably is. Certainly more so than the document by the same name that the FA published in the wake of the last World Cup shambles in 2014.
‘England teams aim to dominate possession intelligently, selecting the right moments to progress the play and penetrate the opposition,’ states the guidelines for how all England teams should play. Southgate was one of the three men who presented it.
Three years later, in the top job, Southgate is telling everyone that England will go to Russia with a formation designed to compensate for their weaknesses rather than enhance any strength. The DNA document also dictates that ‘England teams will play with tactical flexibility’. Southgate has not identified one formation that he believes his side are comfortable with, let alone a variety.
The issue here is not the selection of a three-man defence, but the timing and justification for its implementation and Southgate’s commitment to one particular system, regardless of how the opposition may play. Even more bizarre is Southgate’s honest pessimism which, with the team’s objective at the World Cup still unclear, reeks of little else other than getting his excuses in early, and contrasts hugely with both his promises and the philosophy England allegedly adopted after the last inquest.