Euro 2020: Southgate effective, not effervescent
Gareth Southgate was on the receiving end of brickbats on social media when the England line-up for the round-of-16 clash against Germany was announced an hour before the game on Tuesday. There was no place for Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho or Phil Foden in the starting XI.
With two holding midfielders in front of a three-man central defence, Southgate appeared to have gone for an ultra-conservative set-up against Joachim Loew’s men. With two full backs playing behind the young and inexperienced Bukayo Saka and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, who had been struggling for form before the European Championship, the England manager’s choices drew many raised eyebrows.
Because it meant eight defensive players in the line-up including goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Saka, who has often been employed as a wing-back by Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, too could be considered as a name that was added to the line-up keeping its defensive health in mind.
English fans looking for an entertaining game and being irked by Southgate’s selections wasn’t new. England have some incredible attacking talent in the squad but in none of the four games has flair been their strongest suit. Four goals scored and zero conceded rightly sums up England’s style of football: drab but effective.
“If he is not good enough for England, we would like to give him a German passport,” German great Lothar Matthaeus joked about Sancho’s omission from the starting line-up in a recent interview to Goal. “It has surprised many in Germany,” he said.
But while Southgate’s reluctance in employing some of his best attacking players is indeed surprising, he is avoiding one key mistake at least one of his predecessors made at major tournaments --- Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup.
England went to both with an embarrassment of riches in terms of individual quality. However, there were a few things manager Sven-Goran Eriksson perhaps would have done differently in hindsight.
Most notably, his insistence on using the midfield trio of Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in 2004 may not have been the best of choices – it meant playing Scholes out of position and robbed England the chance of employing a conventional winger on the left.
Then in 2006, the decision to have a recovering Wayne Rooney to lead England’s attack after the opening two group games didn’t quite work out. Rooney looked far from his best through the tournament.
This summer, Southgate has sought an effective team instead of impulsively picking the best individual players available. That the likes of Grealish and Sancho don’t make it to the starting line-ups, or that Mason Mount isn’t rushed back for the game against Germany immediately after completing quarantine, doesn’t mean they aren’t considered good enough by the England manager.
It just means that they are not necessarily the best picks for the kind of set-up Southgate wants to use. The fact that the duo of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice has remained constant in midfield displays Southgate’s desire in reducing risk and keeping things simple in a way that provides the best possible defensive cover for his backline. It also highlights his courage to go against the popular demand of having all of the squad’s best players in the starting line-up.
Following the 2-0 win over Germany in the last 16, Southgate stood vindicated. “You know you change the shape, you pick certain personnel in place of others and if it goes wrong you’re dead,” Southgate told BBC One after the game.
“We had to go about it in the way we believed. We wanted aggressive pressure all over the field and we felt that to match them up was the right way of doing that,” he said of his team composition against Germany that included an additional centre-back than in previous games.
World champions France’s late capitulation against Switzerland showed that even the greatest of teams, one brimming with attacking talent, can collapse within moments in knockout games.
With Ukraine up next, then Denmark or Czech Republic in the semi-final if they win on Saturday, England face a relatively easy route to the final on paper.
However, if they are to win this tournament, England may have to chase games at some point. How Southgate reacts to going behind and how the team adapts tactically will reveal a lot about whether England have it in them to finally win their maiden European Championship.