Thursday, October 28

Gareth Southgate’s Solid England Risks Being Caught Behind a Wave of History | England

TBroken glass has been cleaned. Wembley Way is no longer sticky. As the sense of shame and disappointment fades, and the knee-zjerk panaceas fade, it is perhaps worth reflecting that Euro 2020, embarrassingly as it ended, was one of the great tournaments, perhaps the best since Euro 2000, and wondering what that might mean for next year’s World Cup and beyond.

There was a long period in which international soccer represented the pinnacle of the game; that’s where the greatest concentration of the best players was seen. Then in the late 1970s, when coordinated pressing systems became mainstream and time spent in training ground to develop mutual understanding became increasingly important, the club game took over. From a tactical point of view, at least, international football could be left behind by a few years. More recently, international and club football have felt like different forms of the same sport, so distant from each other in strategy and felt as over-limited and test cricket.

Caution prevailed. With no time to establish cohesive patterns, be it pressure or attacking play, international coaches tended to prefer something simpler: build a defensive block and hope creative players could conjure something to take advantage of a clean sheet.

This is how Portugal won the Eurocup in 2016 and France the World Cup in 2018, the two games in which they scored four in the tournament as a result of the brilliance of their opponents or defensive errors that forced them to attack, for which they offered a tantalizing glimpse of the team that might have been if Didier Deschamps hadn’t been determined that his side should take its own damn image. Even Spain in 2010 and 2012 and Germany in 2014 were less exuberant versions of Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

In that sense, it is significant that the most striking general tactical trend in these Euros was the use of wings. England, Denmark, Switzerland, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Belgium, six of the eight quarter-finalists, all at some point formed with three defenders.

After the 1994 World Cup, Jack Charlton, then coach of the Republic of Ireland, pointed out how the winger had become the most important position on the pitch tactically. In club play, they have become increasingly offensive, to the point where they are often judged less for their defensive qualities than for their ability to beat a man and throw a cross.

But the instinctive caution of national coaches means that they often prefer their full-backs to stay a bit deeper, which was, of course, what led to the pre-tournament debate in England over the inclusion of Trent Alexander-Arnold. That has a domino effect further up the field, eliminating the added angle of attack offered by an aggressive winger and denying wide forwards a player who runs past them to ward off a defender. The result is that international attacks can often appear static.

Italy coach Roberto Mancini made a radical change and showed that it is possible to instill something like club cohesion even at the national level.
Italy coach Roberto Mancini made a radical change and showed that it is possible to instill something like club cohesion even at the national level. Photograph: GES-Sportfoto / Getty Images

So how can offensive full-backs be introduced without sacrificing the safety so important to national coaches? The obvious way is to add an additional central defender, freeing up the full-backs as full-backs and allowing the kind of attack that led England to their goal in the final.

But still, he’s creating solidity that dominates thinking in major tournaments and that guided Gareth Southgate’s approach. He spoke repeatedly about the research he had done on the successes of Portugal and France. He acknowledged, as few England coaches have, that group stages are a secondary concern.

In general, they will be negotiated and nothing else; the ability to rack up great scores against mid-range opponents has little to do with whether a team can beat true title contenders. And this is one of the big problems of trying to analyze international football: in every four-year cycle, even the best teams probably play only half a dozen games that really matter, while an elite Premier League coach in that. moment I could play 10 times more.

Southgate’s pragmatism is perhaps his greatest strength as a coach, and helps explain why he has achieved (including penalty kicks) five knockout victories in major tournaments, two more than any other England manager. He has improved the atmosphere around the team, made them more flexible tactically and for long periods his team has exercised the kind of control that would have been unthinkable for previous England teams.

England has a star shortage that fits the general trend: modern football is all about system and unity, and if the most gifted can’t do that, there are problems, as France and Portugal discovered. It is a measure of how far the South American game has fallen behind Europe (13 semi-finalists to three in the last four World Cups) that the Copa América final was heralded as a battle between Lionel Messi and Neymar.

England lagged behind by just nine minutes in the entire Eurocup. If Marcus Rashford’s penalty had gone four inches to the right, they probably would have won. For them, the tournament was, from any reasonable point of view, a success. But there are two concerns. First, that Southgate can still seem slow to react in games. His blueprints look good, but perhaps he lacks the ability to smell a game and act on it if the game deviates from the plan. In that sense, the similarity between the World Cup semi-final and the Euro final was clear.

But perhaps more troubling is the example of Italy and Spain, the two teams that played 4-3-3 throughout, the two teams with coaches who have enjoyed significant success at the club. Both have the mandate to enact a radical change, Roberto Mancini to implement a fluid pressure game and Luis Enrique to give Spain greater verticality. Both showed that it is possible to instill something akin to club cohesion even at the national level.

There were isolated indications of that in Russia. It’s a high-stakes strategy, and Italy more than once were fortunate to have traditional defensive qualities to lean on, but one with great potential rewards. For Southgate, the danger is that by investigating the past so thoroughly, he ends up fighting the last war and being caught behind the wave of history.

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