A new dawn for England, or so we thought

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Flashback to the summer of 2018 and Gareth Southgate could do no wrong. He was unequivocally the one. Football was coming home again and there’s nothing you could do about it.

Drunk on hope and ambition, so desperate for glory on the international stage, it seems that we failed to see the wool being pulled over our eyes; too caught up in the moment to realise that this World Cup run wasn’t quite the success story it seemed.

England’s latest Nations League adventures in Scandinavia have brought all of our lingering doubts, all the things we didn’t want to be true about the England boss, into sharp relief.

Gareth Southgate is a pleasant man, with all the makings of a 70s Blue Peter presenter. He says all the right things in press conferences. He is the agreeable, waistcoat-wearing establishment figure who we trust will never rock the boat too much. But you know what they say about nice guys.

We forget that this is a man of very little meaningful managerial experience, and his tactical nous, or lack thereof, was laid bare for all to see against Iceland and Denmark.

Southgate’s tactical nous, or lack thereof, was laid bare for all to see against Iceland and Denmark.

It was the quintessential England of old. This felt like footage straight from the archives, as though we had stepped into a time machine and launched back to the early 2010s: an age of hopeful long balls, toothless attacking and sidewards passing.

You would have thought it apt to exhibit heroic qualities on this Nordic themed double-header, but instead we were the cowardly lions, unambitious and overly conservative; spared only by the scuffing of a penalty spot.

Weren’t we supposed to have moved on from those days? So much has been made of Southgate’s glorious youth revolution in bloom and the positive environment he has nurtured, predicated on dynamism and penetration in the final third. These are the characteristics of the post World-cup honeymoon period, which saw free-scoring football in Euros qualification and the maiden Nations League. We only have to think of that electric 3-2 victory over Spain.

But things were better then. We were too busy riding the tide of success in a simpler prelapsarian age, where we didn’t have to think too extensively about boring things like tactics. The outbreak of a certain bat plague has put a stop to all of this momentum, inserting entropy as a keynote motif in our society. This is something that England have fully embraced.

People will say that these are exceptional circumstances – the foolish antics of Foden and Greenwood, the Harry Maguire saga, the lack of fitness that comes with the off-season, late injuries and dropouts, new additions not having time to gel and find chemistry – all amid the Kafkaesque times we find ourselves in.

And perhaps the Iceland display was permissible. They are ultimately a team set up to defend in numbers, and penetrating this stubborn sea of blue was no easy task. We were prepared to give Southgate the benefit of the doubt for then, to contain our reservations and convince ourselves that this was a one off.

This was until Belgium went and put five past the very same team two days later; showing all the risk-taking, high pressing and willingness to flood forward that we seemed totally disinterested in. While the Belgians were busy running riot and putting us to shame, in Copenhagen England outdid themselves with an even more dour performance than the last.

Southgate mixed things up, but this was patently change for change’s sake. He hoped this would give him an outward image of pragmatism, but in reality he was scrambling back to the safe haven of a formation which brought him mild success two summers ago.

In doing so he abandoned the holding 4-3-3 system which was beginning to make England look like a street-wise attacking force, where even if we conceded there remained that self-assured ‘Eng-er-land will score one more than you’ cockiness about us.

Against Denmark the tactics were painfully negative, so superfluously cautious and conservative; there was no sensible plan, no brave tactical vision or belief in our attacking assets.

Against Denmark the tactics were painfully negative, so superfluously cautious and conservative.

Reverting to a back three was utterly nonsensical, with its pitfalls so blatantly obvious to everyone but Southgate even before the game had started. His decision not to call up a specialist left-back cost him dearly, with a painfully awkward left-hand side of Kieran Trippier and Eric Dier that failed to mount any sort of attacking threat, but instead go inwards, and subsequently backwards.

Such unease was evident in the needless double-pivot operating in front of the back three, with Phillips and Rice covering space that didn’t need covering; all at the expense of bombing forward and creating chances.

England once again scored zero marks for creativity. Competition for places has never been so stiff and it showed: everything was far too safe. Rather than ambitious triangles and overlaps, or cunning bits of movement to get in behind the back-line, fans were treated to a handful of touches in the opposition box and long diagonals that all too frequently sailed off the pitch. We looked a different prospect when Grealish and Mount entered the fray, but by then it was too late.

Fittingly England’s only clear-cut opportunity came after an aimless lump up the pitch from Trippier, which Kane latched onto before his effort was cleared off the line by former Huddersfield man Mathias Jørgensen. This effort, along with Sterling’s winning penalty against Iceland, were perfect metaphors for England’s lack of conviction at the moment.

This all starts at the top, with Southgate. Chopping and changing between formations when things get a bit much, players not knowing where they stand or how they fit, a Janus-like loyalty to the old guard co-existing with an embrace of the new, it’s hard to work out what his philosophy is.

There’s an ambivalence which doesn’t seem to command respect from players, who don’t seem to uniformly have a desire to work for each other. When Grealish came on he shrugged his shoulders after being asked about his tactical instructions, which really says it all.

Southgate keeps focusing on the positives, but this idealism needs to be put into practice against sides of England’s calibre in the build up to the Euros. It simply isn’t clicking at the moment, and our scintillating ‘world-class’ talents are going missing.

There is an emerging golden generation, and we need someone who can galvanise it and give it polish. We had this before in 2004, but came out the other end ruing a sense of wasted potential. For that to happen again would be a crying shame.

There is an emerging golden generation, and we need someone who can galvanise it and give it polish.

People are starting to become more critical as the dust settles, with a consensus forming that Southgate may not be all that he was cracked up to be.

But while our first taste of international football after nine months was nothing short of grim viewing, let’s not get carried away. Yes, things need to improve, and improve quickly, but we must only think of Hasenhüttl to remind ourselves of why we do not impetuously sack managers after a bad spell.

Things do need to change, though, or else #SouthgateOut won’t seem so reactionary. People will soon forget with the Premier League back in full flow, but Southgate must use the next month to think about what he wants from his team and reverse this crisis of identity.

In three weeks Belgium will be a good yardstick of where England are at, where hopefully the three lions can rediscover their panache. Southgate must ensure that we come back fighting in October, or else the powers that be will have something thinking to do.

Image: Martin Pettitt via Creative Commons

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