UEFA Nations League

Why an England defeat has never tasted so good

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Gareth Southgate speaks to the media during a press conference at Estadio Dom Afonso Henriques on June 5, 2019 in Guimaraes.

Image credit: Eurosport

ByMarcus Foley
09/06/2019 at 08:49 | Updated 09/06/2019 at 12:24

England's 3-1 extra-time defeat to the Netherlands in the Nations League semi-final is far from disastrous with Gareth Southgate building a style and system that bodes well for the future, writes Marcus Foley.

It was at times calamitous. However, as Gareth Southgate said in his post-match press conference, calamity can be a by-product of bravery.

England were brave against the Netherlands. It is what Southgate has consistently asked of his side since his appointment in September 2016. It has brought the Three Lions unexpected success, with trips to the semi-finals of the World Cup and the Nations League.

It follows, thus, that if England fail - and fail is a relative term – then the methodology should not cease; if anything the Three Lions should double down. Southgate said as much in his pre-match press conference for their third-place play-off with Switzerland, insisting that England have moved past launching the ball into row z at the first sign of trouble.

“We’ve moved past the days where even in the local parks the parents shout: ’Get it out of there’. We can do that, but we won’t be getting to semi-finals because we won’t retain the ball well enough.

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So okay, the other night was painful, but we didn’t lose the game because we were trying to play from the back. We lost because we made mistakes.

England manager Gareth Southgate chats to his backroom staff.

Image credit: Eurosport

Granted it was painful; granted football, ultimately, is a results orientated business but in defeat to the Dutch, Southgate has rejected the short-termism that has blighted football for decades since Charles Reep denigrated the concept of possession-based football in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society in 1968.

The fact England were without arguably six players who would push to make their starting XI - Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli, Danny Rose and perhaps Trent Alexander Arnold - through choice and perhaps another three, maybe even four through injury - Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Alexander Oxlade-Chamberlain and Harry Winks - is not a dereliction of reality; the Netherlands were better than England and the sort of excellence they displayed was not just tied to personnel but personnel remained a factor.

Kane and England were beaten by Holland

Image credit: PA Sport

The Dutch, partially by judgement but also luck, operate within a system that is not solely reliant upon the players who play within that system. They obviously have some exceptional players, Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong among them, but their excellence, as it always has come from a belief within a philosophy. And that a philosophy is what Southgate continues to attempt to foster.

Shorn of the lion's share of his first-choice starting XI, Southgate could have reverted to the tired English trope: long, aggressive and direct; it may have borne fruit but would have undermined the culture of excellence Southgate has built.

It is easy - but reductive - to blame England's loss on John Stones. Granted he was caught on the ball for the Netherlands' second and played Ross Barkley into trouble for the Dutch side's third. However, truth be told, Stones was not solely at fault for either goal. On both occasions he was devoid of options. High-risk football requires the player in possession of the ball to have multiple options, otherwise it becomes wild, reckless football. High risk football demands control; as soon as Stones was out of options the control was gone.

For both perceived errors, Stones had little options. The first of which goalkeeper Jordan Pickford should have offered - no demanded as it everybody's, even more so than the man in possession to assess risk and mitigate it - an option wide of Stones, while Barkley should have met the ball in stride rather than attempt to receive the ball stationary.

Gareth Southgate is all smiles during England training.

Image credit: Eurosport

It was again a point that Southgate addressed in his pre-match press conference ahead of the Switzerland game,

“Well I think there’s a clear difference in terms of a national association and the time that you have to develop really clinical patterns of play [that afford Stones’ more options].

You can get to a certain level of understanding in the period of time we have. But, clearly, if [at club level] you’re doing it every day for two years, it’s a very different situation to the chunks of five to ten days that we have.

England's defeat on Thursday was due to a lack of execution rather than an issue with the system and the demands of it that Southgate stipulates. This bodes well for England's future, including its immediately future: the third-place play-off in Guimaeres on Sunday.

England lost to a Netherlands side who operate within a philosophical framework that is similar to England's: ball retention above all else; the Dutch have players more adroit at doing so but the Swiss do not.

Given England's excellence at youth team level, Southgate's decision to stick with a philosophy that may weigh heavily on the current crop of players is the completely correct one: it sets the tone and should nudge England towards long-term success once the talent pool catches up. And as the last few years have shown at youth level, England have quite the talent pool on the horizon.

Marcus Foley

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FootballUEFA Nations LeagueEnglandSwitzerland
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