Gareth Southgate was preparing himself for a pre-match media to-and-fro about holding midfielders and team balance when he heard Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell would need to isolate. Just to really spice up the England manager’s day, Sky were reporting a £100m offer from Manchester City to Spurs for Harry Kane.
Previous England managers have seen bigger complications. Think Sven-Goran Eriksson in Baden Baden in 2006. But you could see why Southgate might be exasperated. Post-match contact between Mount and Chilwell and their Chelsea comrade, Billy Gilmour, had thrown his team selection for the Czech Republic to the winds of the pandemic. Any planned rejig was now more complicated. And just as Kane had been settled down with the guarantee of a starting place against the Czechs, along came our old friend, Premier League wealth and power, to annex the day’s agenda.
“This is tournaments. You have to adapt, you have to respond, it’s why the depth of the squad is so important,” Southgate said of the uncertainty around Mount. “Calmness around what’s going on at any given time is really critical, I think.”
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At least external chaos saved him from having to answer England fans and pundits who think a shift is needed away from caution towards adventure. Most of the talk was about Covid and whether Mount, who Southgate regards as a “fourth attacker”, would be playing against the Czechs or watching it alone in his room.
Mason Mount (top) and Billy Gilmour
Image credit: Getty Images
The fault-line for grumblers has been Southgate’s preference for two ‘defensive’ midfielders, even though Kalvin Phillips, on the edge of Croatia’s box, provided the neat pass for England’s only goal of the tournament so far. But it’s undeniable that England’s Leeds-West Ham midfield combo looked conservative in the context of how Scotland played and the sluggishness of Southgate’s attackers, which is unlikely to be repeated, unless there really is a “problem” with this team.
Discounting “fatigue”, this is how Southgate explained the Scotland performance: “I think we had a tactical problem to break Scotland down. We couldn’t get the overloads in wide areas as easily as we had done in previous matches and that’s great credit to Scotland. We’ve talked that through with the team. The team that started were in good physical shape and I had no concerns about them.”
The most strident reviews of the Scotland game portrayed Southgate as a coach with a fixed outlook. In reality he has a history of adaptation.
In the six months leading up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland had become unhappy with England’s play. Over dinner on a reconnaissance trip to Russia they designed a new formation with wing‑backs, three central defenders and two No 8s to support Harry Kane - initially Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli. The formation was so effective in the early stages of that World Cup that England’s opponents began changing shape in mid-game to deal with it.
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Landmark tournament switches are an entertaining sub-plot. For England, Bobby Robson’s transformative change to three-at-the-back at Italia 90 turned a team who’d faced the front-page “send them home” treatment after the draw with the Republic of Ireland into semi-final opera stars.
In 1966, for England’s only tournament victory, Alf Ramsey had unveiled his wingless wonder 4-3-3 formation against Spain six months earlier but played a winger in each of the World Cup group games, shifting to 4-3-3 only in the knock-out rounds. Ramsey changed direction halfway through a tournament: a detail missing in many of the wingless wonder narratives.
At Euro 96, Terry Venables had his team ready to alternate between a back-four and a three according to the opposition. Tactical inflexibility was anathema to Venables and his successor, Glenn Hoddle, who both loathed the regimentation of 4-4-2.
It doesn’t always work. Graham Taylor springing a back three on England before the ‘Norse Manure’ game in Oslo in 1993 caused mayhem, with players not knowing where to go or who to mark. Nobody is demanding a radical tactical upheaval from Southgate, but the Scotland game landed him in a place familiar to England managers, where the shouting assails both ears.
Players, too, come and go, rise and fall. Peter Beardsley replacing Mark Hateley in Mexico in 1986 was a catalyst for Gary Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland and added sophistication and fluidity to England’s attack. Four years later, David Platt earned his starting place with his spectacular over the shoulder volley against Belgium on the third of his substitute appearances.
The beauty of this England squad is that Beardsley and Platt have many potential incarnations. Jack Grealish, Jude Bellingham and Jadon Sancho are the obvious candidates to provide more thrust and tip the balance from six defensive and four offensive players to five and five (Bellingham, notably, is able to provide just about every midfield function and has the ‘legs’ to go box to box.)
Poking out from the gloom over Mount and Chilwell and the lingering inquest from Scotland was a reminder of England’s strengths. It came when Southgate was asked why Sancho hasn’t kicked a ball yet.
“Well we just have so many good attacking players,” Southgate replied. “In terms of wide players or players who can play in those areas and come inside we have Raheem Sterling, we have Phil Foden, we have Jack Grealish, we have Marcus Rashford, we have Bukayo Sako and we have Jadon, and they’re all very good players, so if you weren’t asking me about Jadon you’d be asking me about one of the others.”
If England win at Wembley, the emphasis will shift away from Scotland and back to the surfeit of riches everyone was talking about before the tournament. For now though Southgate is in the infernal realm of national agitation he witnessed in his England playing days: a reality even a Covid drama couldn’t disguise.
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