There were murmurs coming from Copenhagen that Gareth Southgate was going to start two defensive midfielders — and no creative ones — against Denmark last week. When the line-ups finally came out, those rumours became the reality. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips would be tasked with stopping the Danes counterattacking. Fine, that’s what they both do so well at their clubs West Ham and Leeds. But, in the absence of an attacking midfielder, they would also have to find space and feed Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Jadon Sancho. Sofa-bashers and amateur England managers across the nation colourfully voiced their distaste at such a boring and conservative midfield selection.
England failed to impress for the second time in four days, perhaps fortunate to earn a goalless draw.
But for the actual England manager, the tables did appear to be starting to turn by the end of the September international break. He hasn’t lost this battle — far from it — but he is at least in a battle. It’s been a while now since anyone affectionately referred to him as ‘Our Gareth,’ or as the man who could do no wrong two years ago.
The pressure on international football to live up to the standards and popularity of club football these days is immense. But immense still is the pressure on the England boss. Some things never change. That never will.
England were boring against Iceland and boring against Denmark. Their formations were different, but they underwhelmed just the same in both. For all of Southgate’s man-management skills and measured diplomacy when asked about pertinent contemporary issues, his tactics have been called into question on occasion. This month, the scrutiny hit new levels.
Clamour for Jack Grealish to be named in an England squad extended across all of last season, during which time the Three Lions won all but one of their matches. This month, with England out of action for the past ten, his name looked destined to be included. Again, it wasn’t. Asked about the decision, Southgate explained that he sees Grealish as a winger, and that competition in those spots is among the highest for any position on the pitch.
When Marcus Rashford dropped out through injury though, the justification for his exclusion became the irrelevant past. Grealish was beckoned in begrudgingly. In total, he played just 14 minutes plus stoppage time.
Just because Grealish often plays out wide for Aston Villa, that doesn’t mean to say he is a natural winger. The masses have been calling for him to be used centrally as a No 8 or a No 10 for a very long time now. Apologies to one of the few England managers to reach a World Cup semi-final, but the masses are right. Villa’s best player could be England’s best midfielder if he was tried out more centrally. His talent seems limitless.
But Southgate judges players on character as well as ability, and with Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood this week as well as with Grealish and James Maddison over the past year, he isn’t afraid to make an example of a player or leave a player out if he feels the time — or the person — isn’t right for his team. Quality can’t be ignored forever though. Grealish and Maddison are both England internationals, that’s a matter of record now.
Besides the Jack Grealish conundrum, Southgate’s tactics have been exposed this month. Flaws appeared which had been hidden under the surface of an England team who couldn’t stop scoring in 2019 against, it has to be said, pretty abject opposition.
Then last week, England played matches against an Iceland side whose squad was without its stars but whose organisation allowed for an excellent defensive display, and against Denmark who are always technically good and tough to beat. Suddenly, the flaws awoke from their hibernation.
The fullbacks struggled to beat their opponent and reach the by-line. Harry Kane was anonymous and looked shot of confidence and fitness. England were heavily dependent on Sterling as their only hope of creating something. Foden, James Ward-Prowse and Mason Mount (off the bench against Denmark) struggled to link the defence and the attack adequately. Joe Gomez, Declan Rice and others were ill-disciplined in their standing tackles — England conceded 24 free-kicks and one penalty across the two fixtures. It all fell demonstrably short of Southgate’s and England’s extremely high standards.
Across the continent, Cristiano Ronaldo hit 100 international goals as his Portugal beat Sweden 2-0 and World Cup finalists Croatia 4-1. France saw off both Sweden and Croatia as well, scoring five in the process. Italy beat the Netherlands. Spain put four past the recently very impressive Ukraine, now managed by national hero Andriy Shevchenko.
And yet, to take a punt at playing devil’s advocate, England came away with four points from a possible six and the group still in their hands, earned revenge for Iceland’s biggest ever night (now four years old), and kept two clean-sheets despite testing out Eric Dier at centre-back, handing a debut to Wolves’ Conor Coady, and in the absence of their best defender Harry Maguire. All of those things are true.
England were decidedly uninspiring during these two matches. That is also true.
Southgate may not be on a par with the Jürgen Klopps and Pep Guardiolas of this world, but he does play the media and keep his players comfortable and smiling yet focused and hard-working as well as any previous England manager did.
To those who have ‘#SouthgateOut’ waiting patiently on their predictive text, who do you suppose replaces the man? Is Eddie Howe an upgrade? Probably not. For all his comments about the possibility of one day landing this job, would Mauricio Pochettino pick it over leading a top European club? Probably not. Would Arsene Wenger ever return to management to assume one of the most scrutinised roles in world football? No chance.
Southgate may not have his centre-back partnership sorted yet. Indeed, it might develop into a three-man backline again. He may not have tested out Nick Pope or Dean Henderson quite as much as he perhaps could have done. He may not have his midfield sorted yet, either in terms of formation or personnel. He may show too much loyalty to off-form players for your liking. You may really hate Michael Keane.
At times like these though, think before you tweet. Breathe before you speak. You may well believe you’d be a way better England manager than the quiet, considered man who currently sits in the seat. But be careful what you wish for.
All Photos: Getty Images