TThe best moment of England’s international marathon week came right at the end. In the 90th minute against Iceland, with England already 4-0 ahead, Harry Maguire cleared the ball high and long towards the right touchline, where Phil Foden – already with two goals for good – bravely pursued an inevitable lost cause.
Instead, when the ball fell from an astronomical height, Foden blatantly threw it along the touchline towards himself, sending Ólafur Ingi Skúlason spinning through space-time – a perfectly outrageous ability with which, If it had emanated from your own feet, you would. it has been his right to pick up the ball and never play again.
Iceland was a pleasantly tame opponent at Wembley on Wednesday night, already relegated in the Nations League and probably exhausted. However, Foden’s excellent individual performance, topped off by his impressive mischief on the right touchline, felt like its own self-contained puzzle – a moment of individual flourishing that pointed the way to a number of possible conclusions. The question, as always, is whether Gareth Southgate will draw the right ones.
For example, you might see in Foden’s exuberant and expressive self-confidence the importance of having a system that takes advantage of his strengths. One could conclude that England are best served by employing the kind of attacking tactics that give their talented players the best possible stage. I could argue that on this form Foden should start and on this form Jack Grealish should start. And that to accommodate both alongside Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, plus at least one from Jadon Sancho or Marcus Rashford or Mason Mount, Southgate must shed his widely despised 3-4-3 and return to the 4-3-3 that served. very well to England at the end of 2019.
This would be drawing the wrong conclusions.
The increasingly tedious debate over 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 may have been relevant a few months ago, but now it feels like a red herring: a pointless dispute over imaginary numbers. It also relies heavily on a series of false dichotomies: between attack and defense, reactivity and proactivity, ambition and lack of it. This shouldn’t require pointing, but you can bombard teams with a 3-4-3 (like Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile), and you can set up a 4-3-3 to defend (like Neil Warnock’s QPR).
What matters much more is the inclination of the players you select, the perspective and positional freedom with which you send them, the conviction of your approach and the collective commitment to it. And yet a cursory glance at Thursday’s newspapers, coupled with the overwhelming weight of opinion online, would suggest that most England pundits and fans would be perfectly happy that Southgate destroyed a system in which he has spent all year working, with maybe four games left before a big tournament.
The irony is that we know exactly what would happen in this scenario, because it happened. Four years ago, a tired and discouraged Roy Hodgson decided to put aside his reputation for order and circumspection and scrap his trusted diamond midfield on the eve of Euro 2016. It was a resounding victory for popular sentiment, carefully dodging the question of how to adapt England’s wealth of attacking talent playing all at once. The 2-1 loss to Iceland ended with Rashford, Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge, Dele Alli and Jack Wilshere all on the field at once.
The irony is that England are currently in the enviable position of having a defined system and a firm understanding of the players who want to play. Kane as a forward, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin as a substitute. Sterling, Sancho, Grealish, Foden and Rashford to compete for the two wide spots. Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice, Mason Mount, and Harry Winks (or Kalvin Phillips) in the center. Bukayo Saka and Ben Chilwell on one flank; Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier (or Reece James) on the other.
Maguire, Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, Tyrone Mings and Michael Keane (or Conor Coady) in the center half, assuming Joe Gomez is out of season. Three goalkeepers. That’s your squad.
If this fall’s League of Nations has taught Southgate anything, it’s that the gap with the major nations will be bridged by organization, not talent.
France, Spain and Belgium, who won their respective leagues, are the three to beat in depth and current form. The Netherlands, Portugal and Germany (despite their 6-0 beating of Spain) are just one notch behind. But Roberto Mancini’s Italy, which also qualified for next year’s final, shows what is possible when a more limited group of players collectively buy a defined style of play.
All of which brings us back to Foden and his lack of ability on the touchline. The real lesson from Wednesday night was that individual outrages – Foden’s movies, Grealish shimmies, the long-range screams that turn big tournaments – exist largely independent of systems and formations. What inhibits them is not tactics but uncertainty, lack of conviction, lack of cohesion, fear of judgment.
And so, as England and Southgate approach the home stretch, it is not so much the system that they play that matters, but rather that they know it and are deeply committed to it. This, perhaps, has been the real value of the international fall breaks: an opportunity to exercise and perfect a style of play that may not yet be producing exemplary results, but may well do so over time. Or, put more trivially: one plan may be better than none. But it is certainly better than two.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.