Gareth Southgate finds what he’s looking for in England’s tireless tyros

Gareth Southgate, centre, congratulates his players at full-time in Holland.
Gareth Southgate, centre, congratulates his players at full-time in Holland. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Last month Gareth Southgate did a long broadcast interview with the journalist Guillem Balagué. It kicked off with Balagué lobbing up a soft one, asking England’s manager what album he would choose to keep if he could listen to only one.

Rather than just doing the decent thing and saying, yeah, I listen to Drake in the car, Southgate went on to talk – for absolutely ages – about how lucky he was to have been in so many dressing rooms, to have been exposed to different kinds of music, different genres and cultures.

“Yes OK, but what album?” Guillem cut in, not giving it up. “Well,” Gareth mused, dwelling a bit more on his recent experience of new music through the younger generation, how varied the cultural palate is, how diverse and multilayered, before concluding, “I guess I’d have to say The Joshua Tree by U2.”

As moments of endearingly David Brent-style comedy go, this made for a good start to an interesting interview. But it also seemed to chime with the wider sense in Southgate-era England of a lot of carefully managed chatter, a place of DNA and cultures and multifaceted whatnot, all set against the same rather careful stadium-rock football.

Or perhaps not. Gareth and The Joshua Tree also came to mind, briefly, as the team for Friday night’s friendly against the Netherlands was announced. The current England squad is a mixed affair, with plenty of outsiders, form horses, and many who have reached this level via the road less travelled. Could it be that England really are about to set off for a major tournament with a team made up of left-field cuts and indie favourites?

In the event the opposite happened in Amsterdam. This was instead a Joshua Tree of a team, compromised entirely of mainstream, platinum-selling parts. All 10 outfield players were drawn from clubs in the last 16 of the Champions League. Every player had spent some part of his youth at a Premier League-or-equivalent academy. Only two Englishman over the age of 27 touched the ball all night.

<span class="element-image__caption">Jesse Lingard takes control of the ball in the Amsterdam Arena.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Phil Duncan/ProSports/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Jesse Lingard takes control of the ball in the Amsterdam Arena. Photograph: Phil Duncan/ProSports/Rex/Shutterstock

There has been an understandable urge to play down the import of a 1-0 win away to a poor Dutch team, who had only three Champions League players of their own on the pitch. Two years ago England beat the world champions and the current European champions as part of their preparations for being humiliated by Iceland at the European Championship.

But there are also times when credit is due for the methodology as much as the endgame. This was in its own way a process realised, a case of Peak Gareth. Win or lose, this team puts to the test the structures and tactics incubated at St George’s Park, via Premier League academies and Southgate’s own under-21 group.

There were plenty of coherent elements. It was striking to hear Ronald Koeman, who knows a bit about elite winning teams, say that England had been more comfortable on the ball. It is a significant cultural shift, and a genuine departure after decades spent watching England teams for whom the ball has so often appeared to be square.

Southgate has instead dropped established international players he feels lack the necessary technical ease to enact his plan of attritional possession from back to front. It would have been easier not to do this, easier not to put Kyle Walker, a player more used to having the ball at his feet, in his back three.

But Southgate stuck to the blueprint, and his team’s comfort in possession as they reined in the Dutch was his reward. England managers have a history of encouraging selections in friendlies, before reverting to the staid old celebrity parts when the tournament pressures arrive. It is to be hoped Southgate will buck this trend. For all the lack of real starriness there were no weak links here, no hobbling A-listers. Every player in the team was fit and full of running.

Some have lamented the absence of Jack Wilshere, pointing to a preference for athleticism over invention. But Wilshere would have been the odd man out in other ways, too, lacking pace, mobility and power. Plus, of course, football has changed a great deal quite quickly. It is a high-pressure team game now. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may lack Wilshere’s artistry, may not caress the ball so lovingly or suggest deeper playmaking gears but in between his sprints and hustle he has also scored and made more goals this season.

Similarly, the attacking three had balance, with no sense of hierarchy or duties too rigidly defined. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling all made runs across the frontline and dropped deep at times. It is often assumed in English football that a tall, muscular centre-forward is the definition of a “plan B”. But interchanging, making different runs, tugging away at the stitches: this is how the best teams vary the point of attack rather than simply tearing up the plan and taking to the skies.

None of which is to say England are suddenly a top-10 team or that this studied planning is going to hold through the extreme stress of tournament football. But after the DNA, the talk about culture and repeating tactical patterns, this was the closest we have come to an example of Total Gareth. England kept the ball and attacked as a mobile unit. Even the goalkeeper seemed grooved to fit the plan, Jordan Pickford’s control and distribution is well suited if England really do intend to continue this way.

No doubt someone will expose the weak points in this set of players. The defence will be pressed by stronger teams. The lack of high-grade passing in midfield may be a problem. But it is to be hoped the selection and tactics against Italy at Wembley can keep to the same course, if only for the fascination of seeing a plan, so often talked up, finally start to bite.