There is a Pochettino axis – with due deference to Jürgen Klopp – at the heart of Gareth Southgate’s new England.
Adam Lallana and Dele Alli are the vanguard – quite literally given the high-pressing they lead out on the pitch – for club and now country ahead of the World Cup qualifier at Wembley against Lithuania on Sunday.
Lallana fulfilled this role under Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, and credited him with his development, which has continued under Klopp at Liverpool. And Alli is doing the same for Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur.
When he is fit, the third part of that triumvirate will be another Spurs player, another Pochettino protégé, in Harry Kane. He will be England’s centre-forward, and maybe also captain, and it will also be intriguing to see how Southgate fits in Raheem Sterling with a resurgent Ross Barkley also in contention.
Suddenly there are energy and options; flexibility and a new feel to England. But if there are footballers who embody what Southgate wants then they are Lallana and Alli. It was interesting, after the friendly defeat away to Germany on Wednesday, to hear the manager suggest that England have not always had players in those positions with the athleticism and work rate required to press the opposition in the way that they do.
Although that was not, necessarily, a slight on Wayne Rooney, it was another acknowledgement that the 31-year-old’s time is passing and England are adapting and changing and players such as Theo Walcott – dropped from this squad – Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere need to take heed.
What is also encouraging is that Southgate is seeking flexibility and choosing on the ability to fit into the team and the way he wants to play. He has already used a new system, with the 3-4-3 working effectively in Dortmund, partly because it gets the best out of the personnel available, especially against stronger opposition, and he is considering another against Lithuania – a 4-1-4-1.
Returning to a back four was always in Southgate’s plans for this Group F fixture, against the team ranked 107th in world football and having just conceded seven goals without scoring in their past two matches – a World Cup qualifier away to Slovakia and a friendly in midweek away to the Czech Republic – although his hand appears also to have been forced by now losing three central defenders with Chris Smalling, like Phil Jones, injured and Gary Cahill suspended.
What will be interesting to see is how Southgate will use Alli and Lallana, who were the two attackers, coming in from the right and left, behind Jamie Vardy against Germany and may be deployed as the central midfield pairing at Wembley where they may have to take it in turns more to move forward.
Both have the game intelligence to cope and have also struck up a rapport, which was acknowledged by Lallana, eight years Alli’s senior at 28, when he said: “Dele is special. I love the way he goes about his business: no fear, he’s brave. That’s what makes him ‘him’.”
All of this may irritate former England manager Roy Hodgson, who was dismissive of talk of formations and systems and will also point out that Lallana was the Three Lions player of the year under him while he was the one who thrust Alli straight into the national team soon after he broke through at Spurs.
But it is different under Southgate. For a start, he has brought a fresh attitude which was acknowledged by Jake Livermore – who has earned a first call-up for five years and who started against Germany – when he said there is a feeling within the game that now it really is down to form and not reputation when it comes to England squads. “The manager seems to pick here on current form and I’m thankful for that,” Livermore said.
We all are. This appears the least ‘big-name’ England squad for many years, which may say much about the state of the national team but also, more so, suggests that it is about the team rather than keeping stars happy.
It is a far cry, also, from Sam Allardyce declaring that Rooney can play where he wants – which did neither him nor the player any favours – after his only match in charge away to Slovenia.
The new approach can be seen in the way Southgate has handled the captaincy issue. There will be a fourth different captain in as many matches against Lithuania – after Jordan Henderson, Rooney and Cahill – and although that is because of injury and suspension he has also made it clear he will be choosing a team and then who leads it.
That has helped him phase out Rooney. It will also help him fashion a team and a squad based on a different, unfussy approach and it suddenly feels like Southgate is a manager himself more in the mould of the two men who influenced him the most when it came to international football: Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle.
They are two contrasting characters but tactically and technically undoubtedly the best England have had in recent years while Southgate has, so far, displayed the confidence to do things his way and has already identified the two players to lead this forward for him in Alli and Lallana. It is about work rate, not reputation.
READ MORE ABOUT:
- Jamie Vardy
- Mauricio Pochettino
- Gareth Southgate
- Jordan Henderson
- Raheem Sterling
- Phil Jones
- Daniel Sturridge
- Ross Barkley
- Gary Cahill
- Chris Smalling
- Dele Alli
- Jack Wilshere
- Adam Lallana
- Harry Kane
- England Football Team
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