England news: John Stones and Phil Foden give Gareth Southgate perfect excuse to loosen the shackles
As England meet for the first time in 2021 all eyes are on their plans for Euro 2020. With a lot of their younger players having an extra year to develop, some people have them as one of the tournament favourites. However, there are concerns over the approach of Gareth Southgate. Pete Sharland looks at why a pair of Manchester City stars offer him a chance to take a positive step.
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Last year was a weird one, for everyone. For the England football team it was a year of taking one step forward and then two steps back.
Wins over Wales and Belgium at home were very encouraging but that was punctuated by losses at home to Denmark and away in Belgium, as well as a draw in Copenhagen. At times manager Gareth Southgate was denied his best players due to injury, but even when he had them he didn’t seem sure how to use them.
Southgate won the hearts of a nation with a three-at-the-back formation. He led an unfancied England team to the semi-finals of the World Cup and as he fearlessly threw young players into the fold thoughts turned to the upcoming European Championships and the World Cup in Qatar.
However, nearly three years later it’s hard to say that Southgate has taken England to another level, or even that they’re noticeably better than where they were in Russia in 2018. Of course that might change with a strong showing in the tournament finals but right now things look a bit unclear.
One of the biggest problems is what formation Southgate uses. He loves using a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 because of the freedom it affords the wing-backs and having the extra central defender. But it is making England stodgy in attack and they are becoming too predictable.
The solution is a change, and he has two players in the form of their lives who make it possible.
In the past Southgate’s use of three at the back was understandable. England had no elite defenders. That is not the case now.
The resurgence of John Stones has been nothing short of remarkable. From being a complete laughing stock Stones has established himself as one of the best defenders in the league. His ability on the ball was never in doubt but he has stepped up defensively.
Stones doesn’t excel within any particular stat, partly because he didn’t play earlier in the season and partly because his game doesn’t necessarily lend itself to it. Yet where he stands out is his focus, something that has been the death of him on more than one occasion. Stones hasn’t made a single error leading to a goal this season and has committed just five fouls.
John Stones of Manchester City celebrates scoring the second goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham United at Etihad Stadium on February 27, 2021 in Manchester, United Kingdom
Image credit: Getty Images
In the past Stones was a liability, now he’s Mr Reliable for City. What that means is that Southgate should be comfortable moving to a back four where Stones is paired with Manchester United captain Harry Maguire. It’s far from the perfect solution but England aren’t producing a lot of excellent centre-backs at the moment, particularly ones that can use the ball in the way Stones can.
Moving to a back four allows Southgate to add an extra player to his severely depleted midfield and that player should be Stones’ club team-mate, Phil Foden.
If Stones has been the surprise revelatory story of the season so far then Foden has been the most welcome one. As has been written extensively in the past few months Foden’s development has been perfectly managed by Guardiola, who got a lot of flak at the time and deserves praise now.
Foden has six goals and five assists so far this season in the Premier League. That is the most in either category for players aged 21 or under. His combined goal and assist tally of 11 is the best, and only Pedro Neto (10) and Bukayo Saka (7) can come close.
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Foden has mostly played out wide but Guardiola hasn’t been afraid to move him into the middle and deeper, where most envision his future. That might also be his present with England as he offers an intriguing option for Southgate.
If Southgate moves back to a 4-3-3 then Foden seems like the obvious choice as one of the two slightly more advanced central midfielders. He has energy for days, brilliant attacking instincts and isn’t afraid to get stuck in.
How you utilise the rest of the midfield trio can alter depending on the opponent. Regardless, you would expect one of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice to act as the anchor. Against tough teams they can play together and support Foden. Alternatively in those matches or in matches against teams of similar stature you can even throw Jude Bellingham in as a support act next to Foden.
Phil Foden of Manchester City runs with the ball during The Emirates FA Cup Quarter Final match between Everton v Manchester City at Goodison Park on March 20, 2021 in Liverpool
Image credit: Getty Images
Against smaller teams that England struggle to break down, Mason Mount or even Jack Grealish can drop deeper to give a real oomph from deep. Of course there’s question marks over Grealish’s best position. Based on performances this season Grealish has a pretty good case to be the starting left-winger in a 4-3-3 with Raheem Sterling on the other flank. That leaves no place for Marcus Rashford or Jadon Sancho sure, but neither has exactly blown the doors down this season with their form.
There are five games left before England’s first match of Euro 2020 against Croatia. Time is running out for Southgate to make his decisions. On paper at least England have a relatively favourable group for the tournament but it is exactly the sort of group where they could find themselves knocked out, or at least with a tough second-round tie, if they switch off. Giving England’s opponents something else to think about is the perfect solution to the problem and making them that little bit less predictable will be critical if they are go far this summer.