Unlock! Throw open the gates. Unleash the legions of nimble‑footed attacking midfielders. Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of Gareth.
This has been a common note in the wider review of England’s chances before this summer’s rescheduled Euro 2020. There is a familiar pattern to these pre‑tournament weeks: a familiar froth of optimism, undercut, as ever, with a creeping conviction of where the fatal clogs and flaws in the squad and the system are already forming.
This time around England Hope and England Fear are derived from pretty much the same source. The current team have been fashioned out of Gareth Southgate’s innate tactical caution, their best moments built on packing the midfield and defence, on possession retained via an extra man at the back.
And yet as England head into their World Cup qualifying triple-header, there is a sense among the noises off that the chief obstacle to further progress is that same roundhead quality. This has been a theme of the last two years, the fear that a rare wealth of creative riches will be left to congeal while Southgate’s England concentrate instead on stopping opponents from playing.
There is some logic in this. Attempts to walk backwards into a tournament final have already been dashed on the fields of Guimarães and Moscow. Never mind the endless frowning over the precise makeup of Southgate’s defensively geared back seven. The most interesting part of this squad is the part where Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, James Maddison, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Bukayo Saka, Harvey Barnes (probably), Mason Greenwood (on talent), Emile Smith Rowe (oh yes) are all worthy of some role.
This time around England must attack – because this is their strength. So the focus for the coming games against San Marino, Albania and Poland should be gingering up those forward combinations, regearing the tactical plan in order to draw the sweetness out of this fine crop of technical players.
It is both an interesting idea and an obviously flawed one. There is a lot to like about the notion England should try to play fluent attacking football, with a forward‑looking midfield unit as opposed to the usual double bolt. But only if we accept that this summer is a one‑off, a shared coming-out after a gruelling year, and that dishing up a freewheeling spectacle is a more laudable aim than sneaking into the late stages by any means necessary. This is to some degree a free hit. Take a shot. Entertain us.
In reality Southgate’s instincts are correct. Bring out the thumbscrews. Fire up the Gareth shields. Never mind those attacking combinations, the most convincing route towards a July date at Wembley is the more familiar route of defensive structure, ball retention and finding ways to edge through the fine-margins knockout games against stronger teams.
This is the way to succeed at international tournaments, just ask France and Portugal. The last teams to dance the rest of the field into submission were probably Brazil 1970, Brazil 2002, perhaps Spain in 2008. With all due respect to England’s promising creative players, this is not the Azteca Stadium and nobody here is Ronaldinho.
It can only help England’s chances to be clear on this now. One of the obstacles Southgate will face is a slightly deluded notion of England’s actual level.
There is no shortage of talent in the Premier League, but the shredding of the calendar has hampered the senior England team’s development. No fixtures between November 2019 and September 2020, followed by a rush of muddled triple-headers, means Belgium and the Netherlands are the only elite teams England have played in the last two and a half years.
This would be of less importance if the bulk of the squad were engaged in elite European club football, ideally in each other’s company. But at this point it is worth looking at Southgate’s resources with a clear eye.
Forget club loyalties and future potential. As far as the rest of Europe is concerned, England have three established A-list club players right now: Harry Kane, Sterling and the injured Jordan Henderson – the first two on their metrics, Henderson for leadership and trophy-lifting reasons.
England have young players who will surely reach a high level. Foden may already be there. But it is worth bearing in mind only 13 of 26 players in Southgate’s current squad played in this season’s Champions League. None of them have won it. Nineteen – nineteen! – have never won a major trophy. Compare this with 20 current Champions League players in Germany’s squad, including seven from last season’s winners.
English expectation, and the wisdom of seeing this group as a front-foot attacking team, should be seen in context of a genuinely strong field. These Euros will feature the winners of the last four World Cups. Belgium have beaten England three times in three years. Portugal are reigning European champions, Nations League holders, and have the Gandalf-Bilbo-Baggins double act of João Félix and Cristiano Ronaldo up front, not to mention the best centre-back, best full-back and (probably) best No 10 in the Premier League.
It is unlikely any of these teams are losing sleep at the prospect of being danced off the pitch by England’s promising tyros, or a central midfield peopled by hopeful 21-year-olds.
And so back to caution. England have a very good chance of making the Wembley shootout stage of these Euros, at which point anything can happen. But the idea Southgate will depart from his defensive strengths and attempt out of the blue to become a world-class attacking coach 12 weeks before his defining moment as England manager is not sustainable.
Instead he will surely revert to first principles against the better teams: three at the back and a two‑man defensive midfield. Declan Rice and Mount has been floated as a more “progressive” option as the pivot but Southgate has talked this down.
All is not set. Based on recent performances there are tweaks and refinements that might make England’s attacking presence more robust. Southgate was particularly taken with the second half at home to Belgium last year.
England had two shots on target all game. They used nine defensive players. But their aggressive second‑half press, combined with more advanced midfield starting positions and a higher defensive line, was a successful shift of gear against very good opponents. This is how this team might look to develop – still defensively manned, but less passive.
Another option is to play counterattack, as England did in the first half of the other significant win of the last few years, against Spain in Seville. They have the speed and the resilience to play like this in spells without weakening the defensive pillars.
The other option Southgate could, but probably won’t, add to the mix is use of a false 9. This isn’t a weird funky tactic any more. The Premier League leaders are doing it right now, using two of Southgate’s best players. When Kane is off the pitch, England’s back-up strikers are a level down. Packing the advanced midfield, allowing those inside forwards to roam a bit more: this is one way of using England’s best attacking players without losing a body in deeper positions.
Either way Southgate seems certain to stick with the team building of the last five years, with a selection based above all on solidity. This is not the moment to chase the sun. If England can add a little variation, or regear this system to become less passive, they have a shot at a memorable summer.