Steve Holland: England won’t play ‘fantasy football’ with Euros team selection - just look at Argentina

·8-min read
Steve Holland: England won’t play ‘fantasy football’ with Euros team selection - just look at Argentina
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Jose Mourinho’s contribution to the ongoing debate over how England should line up against Croatia on Sunday has been welcomed within the Three Lions camp.

In fact, not just the Special One’s input, but everyone playing fantasy football ahead of Sunday’s game against Croatia at Wembley.

“It is nice to be involved in a team where so many people have got an interest and a view,” says Gareth Southgate’s assistant, Steve Holland. “One day I will be involved with a team that nobody cares about and I will know I’m in trouble.

“I was reading Jose with his team and he made a comment, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not telling you your team, I’m just enjoying what I’d do and thinking it through.’

“I think we are all enjoying that.”

Mourinho’s preferred XI made for interesting reading – not least because of the absence of his former Manchester United player Marcus Rashford.

Still, it was very much an attacking line-up, featuring a front four of Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish and Harry Kane.

In an ideal world, he would have named Son Heung-Min, but for the fact the Tottenham forward is South Korean. Southgate, though, needs that type of player to get the best out of Kane, Mourinho claimed on Friday. Even in the world of fantasy football, some things are too far-fetched.

Holland says England’s preparations are firmly rooted in reality – and despite Southgate naming a squad loaded with attacking talent, he will not fall into the same trap as Argentina at the last World Cup, who were a hot mess under Jorge Sampaoli.

“They had (Paulo) Dybala, (Angel) Di Maria, (Sergio) Aguero, (Gonzalo) Higuain, Lionel Messi,” adds Holland. “(Mauro) Icardi didn’t make the squad. So you have an amazing array of talent, but they went out in the round of 16 averaging three goals against every game.

“This is not fantasy football. It is nice to play that game, but you can’t just throw four or five players together. What that team showed is that if you try to cram too many in you don’t even get the best of the individuals that if you play with fewer, they can provide.

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

“So our challenge is clear, we have to find the right balance. That will differ from game to game and I think that will look different in the first minute than it does in the 90th. And those guys that walk off the pitch in the 90th minute are every bit as important, if not more important than those that walk out before the national anthems.

“I think it is a really healthy situation that we have and as we progress through, the team that starts the first game for the successful teams is never the team that starts at the end.

“I remember when I was in my late-teens, [Marco] Van Basten in ‘88 was a sub first game. Won the Golden Boot.

“In Italia ‘90 [Toto] Schillaci was a sub in the first game and also won the Golden Boot, so these are the realities of tournament life.”

 (AFP/Getty Images)
(AFP/Getty Images)

Holland is a deep thinker about the game. He believes England are now blessed with players capable of taking on complex tactical instructions – a fact no better demonstrated than by the number of Southgate’s squad who have excelled under Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel in reaching the Champions League Final with Manchester City and Chelsea.

It is little wonder then that he is less concerned about starting with a back-four or a central defensive three, as has become a national debate.

England have come a long way since the humiliation of Euro 2016 and elimination at the hands of Iceland.

“I have so much respect for Roy [Hodgson] and his staff, but it’s been accepted that the sum of the parts didn’t represent what the capability was,” says Holland, sitting at a picnic table at the Three Lions’ St George’s Park headquarters.

“When the pressure came there was a bit of a performance fall because the players weren’t comfortable with that pressure.

“So the number one priority for Russia was to try to be very specific with the requirements and roles of the players in one way of playing. We pretty much stuck with that all the way through, and I think we achieved that. We’re now in a different moment. We have half of the squad who played Russia, so they have come through that process and also three years in between.

“We also have a lot of younger players who are coming from our top clubs. The flexibility that is required now to play at the highest level. For example, Manchester City play 4-3-3 normally, but they defend 4-4-2 and they attack, pretty much 2-3-5.

“If you look at how Chelsea have been, they play 3-4-3, but they defend in a back-four sometimes with one of the wing-backs pressing in midfield and they have been really flexible with or without the ball.

“Mason [Mount] sometimes has been a No10, sometimes a No10 with the ball, but without the ball he drops into midfield and makes a 5-3-2 and sometimes they play with one behind two.

“So the point I am really trying to make is that the modern-day footballer is used to adapting and I think we have a situation where in March we played 4-3-3 and in the autumn we played 3-4-3 and we were happy with both.

“We got reasonable results in both. We beat the No1 team in the world [Belgium] playing 3-4-3 and our results in March were good.

“I see it is quite possible we start with one and finish with another, at times. Players are well drilled with both and it is up to us to choose the best one for the best opponent given the form our players are in and in the end all of those things come into the judgement.”

That all sounds well and good – but England were passed into submission against Croatia when beaten in the semi-finals at the World Cup.

What has changed, and how do they go about curtailing the brilliance of Luka Modric on Sunday?

“We know them very well of course,” adds Holland. “They seem to produce these midfield players. In the World Cup – [Ivan] Rakitic, Modric. Rakitic has finished international football. But [Mateo] Kovacic has very similar attributes really.

“It’s the strength of their team. They have good players everywhere, but particularly in midfield. [Marcelo] Brozovic was a champion with Inter. Modric we all know. Kovacic has won the Champions league.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

“The profile of their team is that those three players like to come very low in the build-up and dominate and dictate the game.

“You’ve just got to try and get that balance between trying to be aggressive and get good pressure, and those moments where you have to wait.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges we face, how we handle those three players in particular, but we have good players of our own in that area.

“There might be periods where you don’t have the ball, but you still have good stability without it, and when you recover it, you can still hurt the opposition.

“It’s one of the fascinating aspects of the game. We’ve played them three times, in our time, myself and Gareth. One win. One draw. One defeat. There won’t be much in it.”

For all the optimism surrounding England, Holland is keeping his feet on the ground.

As a coach at Chelsea, he saw what was required to win the biggest trophies. As an England fan, he’s known too much heartache.

“It is really simple that one,” he says. “I am 51 and I have seen - before Russia - England in two semis in 50 years.

“With the exception of two tournaments, at this point, we get optimistic. It is what we do. It is a good way to be.

“There is a reality check there. My experience from winning at Chelsea was that we were consistently close when we won the Champions League in 2012.

“That group who won the Champions League were there long before I was. They were in semi-finals and finals and consistently getting close.

“Liverpool before they won the Champions League were in the final, we have not managed in my 50 years on the planet to consistently get close in major tournaments with England.

“The two highs we have had we never managed to build and consistently go close. France were in the Euro Championship final before they were world champions. What I think the next challenge is, is to build a team that can consistently go close and then maybe we have the foundation to believe this is our time. That could be now.

“Certainly it is a pressure we are happy to have. There is not a conversation in the building behind us that is not based on creating the feeling that to win is possible. That is our objective and that is what we will give everything to achieve.”

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