Can Gareth Southgate galvanise a nation by being un-English?
Gareth Southgate has selected a squad that could be termed as un-English but it may bear substantial fruit, writes Rich Jolly.
The headlines about it nearly all stem from 2016, 2017 or 2018. Twenty years on, nineties nostalgia has become a thing: bemoaned by some, beloved by others. English football could be forgiven for placing itself firmly in the latter camp, remembering an era that brought a renaissance of the national game and a transformation into the most lucrative league in the world, a decade that began with England proving surprise World Cup semi-finalists and ended with Manchester United winning the Champions League in the most surprising of styles.
Nineties nostalgia has a certain appeal. It was a mere “thirty years of hurt” that Frank Skinner and David Baddiel were singing about in Euro ’96; it is a further 22 years of hurt since England’s last semi-final appearance, since Gareth Southgate’s penalty was saved by Andreas Kopke, and, in an illustration of his character, the defender subjected himself to interviews where he declared: “I feel I have let the entire country down.”
STEVE STONE AS NOBBY STILES RE-INACTS THE 1966 WORLD CUP FINAL WITH FRANK SKINNER AND DAVID BADDIELReuters
From the prime minister downwards, plenty of others queued up to tell Southgate he had not. Yet that openness, that willingness to take responsibility feels part of the cultural reset he has implemented. England are unlikely to recapture the feelgood factor of Euro ’96, a very specific product of a time and a place in history, but he may have the most likeable national side since the 1990s. “There are no egos,” said Fabian Delph last week.
The throwback element may be partly psychological. It is also partly tactical. Even if it was enforced because Gary Neville was suspended, England played 3-5-2 when they performed outstandingly against Germany in Euro ’96; they switched mid-match to 3-5-2 against Scotland and Spain, too. A 3-5-2 formation also permitted them to play brilliantly against Germany in their first semi-final of the decade. Glenn Hoddle embraced 3-5-2 in his reign as England manager and the goalless draw in Rome to qualify for the 1998 World Cup ranked as a tactical masterclass. They are comparative rarities for England.
If we are all the product of influences at formative stages of our thinking, that certainly seems true of Southgate the manager. His England reflect the thoughts of Terry Venables, Hoddle and Brian Little, who revived Aston Villa by playing 3-5-2 at a time when the shape represented an exotic addition to the embryonic Premier League.
Germany beat England, 6-5 on penalties,(semi-final)- (after extra time), David Seaman consoles team-mate Gareth SouthgateGetty Images
Both Venables and Little used one striker off the other; for Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford as the roving No. 10 now, read Teddy Sheringham and Dwight Yorke. Hoddle liked the idea of a striker as captain; once again, Harry Kane can be compared with Alan Shearer.
Southgate’s Plan A involves two No.8s, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard presumably taking up the roles Paul Gascoigne and David Platt did in the Euro ’96 semi-final; Plan B, with Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson paired as defensive midfielders, will be Hoddle’s 1998 blueprint with David Batty and Paul Ince. It does not necessarily mean Trent Alexander-Arnold will be furnished with DVDs of Gary Charles playing wing-back for Villa, but England will wear their influences on their sleeve.
Logic underpins Southgate’s seemingly sentimental switch. The paradox is that England, the spiritual home of 4-4-2, were poor at playing it; the irony is that they got beaten by an Iceland side playing 4-4-2 two years ago. But in previous tournaments, they got outnumbered in midfield time and again, trapped in their tactical straitjacket while playing in straight lines. They were limited tactically throughout Sven-Goran Eriksson’s reign, again under Roy Hodgson in 2012 and almost neanderthalic in their dismalness for Fabio Capello in 2010. They found men who are not stereotypical 4-4-2 players elegantly elusive: Mesut Ozil eight years ago and Andrea Pirlo six and four. England were outwitted, outmanoeuvred and, soon, out. Even Hodgson’s supposedly enlightened, probably Gary Neville-devised 4-2-3-1 against Italy in 2014 had the same old problem: two central midfielders could not cope with three or four.
England Kit Manager Tom McKechnie, Team Ambassador David Beckham, Massuer Mark Sertori, Fitness Coach Massimo Neri, Goalkeeping Coach Franco Tancredi, Assistant Goalkeeping Coach Ray Clemence, Team Doctor Ian Beasley, Head of Physiotherapy Gary Lewin, manReuters
Southgate’s system contains a trio and offers different passing angles, which confounded Nigeria until they matched up. It gives a policy of safety in numbers in defence for a side without a proven world-class centre-back. If three centre-backs allows him a platform to spring other players forward, it is also imperative that triumvirate can be constructive.
Southgate, once a central midfielder who scored 12 goals in a season, is a case in point. John Stones has a different upbringing but, with his passing, a midfielder’s skill-set. Kyle Walker is a very different type of full-back to Southgate’s former Villa colleague Steve Staunton, but another used in a back trio who is far from an old-fashioned stopper. Dier may follow Southgate’s path from midfield to defence.
His defining attribute as a player was his intelligence. It is something England have lacked too often in the last two decades. They have talked instead about individual excellence and experience, but Southgate mentioned last week that he only had four caps going into Euro ’96. It was, he said, the best of his four international tournaments. That belief freshness can be beneficial was reflected in his selection.
Fittingly, most of Southgate’s squad were born in the 1990s. The same could be said for other sides, but it is notable how, for different reasons, many of those who entered this world in the 1980s – Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Chris Smalling, Daniel Sturridge, Ryan Bertrand, Adam Lallana, Jake Livermore, Jermain Defoe, Theo Walcott – fell by the wayside.
Southgate’s progressive nostalgia project is unEnglish but based in logicGetty Images
Many of their replacements are too young to remember Euro ’96. Rashford and Alexander-Arnold were not even born then. Yet it was a tournament when England galvanised a nation by being un-English, in their tactics, their reading of the game, their prowess and their progress. The challenge, in Southgate’s progressive nostalgia project, is if history can repeat itself.