Until last summer, Gareth Southgate’s process as England manager had been clear. The job he took on back in 2016 was a sizeable one, but there had been a method to his evolution of the Three Lions. Recently, though, the process has stalled. England have stopped moving forward with the 2022 World Cup just around the corner.
At the 2018 World Cup, England generally played on the counter attack. Southgate recognised a lack of controllers at his disposal in the centre of the pitch and sought to make the most of the youthful exuberance and pace of his players. It worked as England made an unexpected run all the way to the semi-finals.
But in defeats to Belgium and Croatia in Russia it was obvious England needed to build a stronger structure in midfield and so Southgate set up his team with a platform of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice for Euro 2020. Once again, this development improved England as they made the final where they lost in a penalty shootout to Italy.
On talent alone, England should have beaten Italy. The opportunity was there to win a first major honour since 1966, but the pragmatism shown by Southgate ultimately stopped his team from imposing their own game on an inferior opponent. It cost them and so England need to find more creativity and guile before the 2022 World Cup.
That, however, hasn’t happened. Instead, England are as stale as ever with Southgate as their manager, as demonstrated by the underwhelming Nations League performances against Hungary and Italy. The Three Lions have now gone over six hours without scoring a single goal in open play. They are too easy to play against.
“We’re very, very reliant on Harry and Raheem for our goals at the moment and that is a concern,” Southgate admitted. “We keep working on getting balls into the right areas, but in the end in the attacking areas the quality of play is crucial. We had a long discussion about needing to control games better, which is a desire without a doubt, but controlling games with possession doesn’t guarantee the goals. In the end if you don’t score then you end up open to criticism, as I’m sure we will be.”
Back in 2018, when England played on the break at the World Cup, they could point to a lack of attacking midfield talent to explain their approach. Now, however, Southgate has a good number of options in this area of the pitch – see Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Conor Gallagher, Jack Grealish and James Maddison among others.
It could be argued that England boast the most complete squad in international football right now, but they certainly don’t play the most complete game. Southgate has failed to evolve his team, and his approach, since the Euro 2020 final and it might now be too late for him to make any fundamental changes before this winter’s World Cup.
By now, the likes of Foden and Mount in particular should have been fully integrated into the England team. Southgate should have eased his reliance on a double pivot in the centre of the pitch and freed up one of the positions held by Phillips and Rice at Euro 2020 to be filled by a more dynamic option.
Instead, England are a muddled team with a muddled philosophy. It’s not even as if they can count on the conservatism that worked well for them in the knockout format of Euro 2020 – England’s structure was broken apart time and time again by Hungary at Molineux on Tuesday night. This close to the 2022 World Cup, England should be in better shape than they are.