Euro Football

Gareth Southgate and the hunt for balance which will define England hopes at Euro 2020

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The pursuit of balance is an affliction not, of course, unique to English football.

It is, however, a theme which regularly bedevils a pragmatic nation not wedded to any fundamental principles beyond resuscitating fading dreams of 1966. Whatever that looks like, at the time.

This tension has moved into the heart of Gareth Southgate’s reign.

Impressive results continue to be chalked up, including Sunday’s come-from-behind 2-1 triumph against Belgium – FIFA’s number one-ranked nation. Impressive performances… well, they are a rarer beast.

Winning when playing poorly is, still, a good habit to pick-up. How predecessors Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson craved its presence in the big matches that define tenures, or even careers.

Yet, how sustainable can unconvincing victories be without tangible tactical foundations? A convincing answer to this probing question must be presented next summer at the delayed Euro 2020.

Fragmented football has followed this autumn’s return of the three-man defence witnessed in the early years of Southgate’s reign. The tactical plan had been placed in storage since September 2018’s 1-0 friendly win against Switzerland.

This is a system, though, shared with the late Sir Bobby Robson. Both men eschewed the four-man defences synonymous with British football and were rewarded with World Cup semi-final appearances.

Glenn Hoddle, meanwhile, wasn’t as fortunate in 1998. Recall David Beckham’s kick, Diego Simeone’s dramatic fall and Pierluigi Collina’s refereeing.

Harsh realities have been confronted by Southgate.

June 2019’s 3-1 humbling by the Netherlands in the Nations League’s semis featured 27 attempts on Jordan Pickford’s peppered goal. John Stones and Harry Maguire floundered as the two centre-backs in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with the former only subsequently winning one cap.

Maguire became football’s most-expensive defender that summer, grew into new surroundings at Manchester United and then saw his form – and personal life – implode post-lockdown.

New partner Joe Gomez gave away a foolish penalty in September 5’s charmed 1-0 win at Iceland, 4-2-3-1’s last outing. A nadir was then reached when hooked around the hour mark in champions Liverpool’s staggering 7-2 loss at Aston Villa, prior to the international break.

Southgate has decided a larger insurance policy is required. The 3-4-3 shape utilised in September 8’s dire goalless draw at Demark also featured in Thursday’s 3-0 friendly thrashing of weakened Wales and the Belgium success.

What is to be gained by, what many voices consider, a retroactive step into the tactical past? The last side to win a European Championship with a five-man defence was Germany in 1996.

Romelu Lukaku’s penalty on Sunday represented the first goal conceded in seven matches since October 2019’s 2-1 loss at Czech Republic. A four-man backline was used in five of these fixtures.

England, furthermore, ceded more attempts on goal to Denmark and Belgium. This happened once, the defeat in Prague, in the last eight games from which a four-man defence was selected.

Context, though, is provided by the paucity of opposition faced throughout a simple Euro 2020 qualification process. Expected goals (xG) was also in England’s favour, according to Wyscout, against Wales and Denmark, unlike Belgium.

An unclear picture was further muddied by a chastening first-half display against the Belgians, followed by an uplifting second half.

Mathematics is, also, at play.

An extra defender for security helps avoid the chaos witnessed in September 2019’s 5-3 win against Kosovo, but at the cost of an advancing midfielder.

Attacking blend is an enduring issue for Southgate. A midfield trio of, for example, Jordan Henderson, Harry Winks and Phil Foden in support of Jadon Sancho, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling puts his side on the front foot, rather than battling away with wing-backs and losing either Foden or Sancho from the XI.

Southgate beguiled a despondent nation in Russia. Merely making the last-four was a triumph beyond rock-bottom expectations.

Aesthetics were not high on the priority list.

Thorough analysis of World Cup 2018 for England, however, contains defeats in both fixtures against strong nations – Belgium and Croatia. They edged past Tunisia and Colombia, hammered minnows Panama and only truly impressed in the quarter-finals versus Sweden.

This minimalist approach may give England a footing at Euro 2020. It is highly unlikely to help topple a series of giants.

Their run, if successful, at Euro 2000 could contain meetings with Croatia, Serbia, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and France. Something extra is require to navigate this path.

Be bold, be brave and roar like Lions. Don’t go out with a whimper, whenever that is.

Ditch the five-man defence, ditch the reticence.

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