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There is an odd, rather overlooked detail about the recent progress of the England football team. Gareth Southgate has picked 10 full-back combinations for England’s past 11 internationals. Yes, really. Ten!
This has been a giddy two-year journey through James-Shaw, Walker-Trippier, Godfrey-Shaw, Alexander-Arnold-Trippier, Walker-Chilwell, Walker-Shaw, James-Chilwell, Walker-Trippier, Trippier-Chilwell, James-Saka, and James-Maitland Niles. It is a tale of faff, vacillation (and unavailability) that has culminated in the baffling gambit of selecting four different full-backs for the opening two group games of Euro 2020. One question presents itself: why?
No successful team has ever done this. No player operates best in this kind of flux. Obsession is good, detail is good. But it helps to be obsessed with the right things, to be making plans that speak to other plans, or even to some kind of vision beyond simply fiddling. Meanwhile England have three shots on target at Euro 2020 and no clear attacking pattern. Effort is being expended, details churned. But to what end?
Mainly there is a growing sense of trapped energy. Chekhov came up with the idea of the shotgun above the mantelpiece. If there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1 of your drama, someone had better be firing it by Act 2. By the same token if you have an abundance of attacking talent – dribblers, speed-merchants, velvet-touch princelings – at some point you really do need to encourage them to show it on the pitch.
For now Southgate seems to have rejected this dramatic rule in favour of something more diffuse. We appreciate and welcome guns as a basic principle. We have a wealth of promising guns in the pathway. We will, in due course, be reviewing their use as part of a wider process. Now. Shall we talk about right-backs for a bit?
In the meantime England’s progress through Euro 2020 has oscillated between familiar extremes. The impressive, tightly fought 1-0 against Croatia inspired great excitement. The unimpressive tightly fought 0-0 against Scotland brought an equal ratio of frenzied disquiet.
There is no need to panic now. Even the best teams can chug their way through these early games. Southgate will be aware his best chance of success is to stick with rather than junk his entire tactical blueprint. It is, though, always a little later than you think. It already looks as though the final group fixture against Czech Republic at Wembley on Tuesday night will decide not just where England play next, but the trajectory, the mood music, the basic sense of possibilities around this team.
And at some point they really do have to catch fire. The throttle must be revved and talent expressed. Not just because this is still an entertainment, a spectacle, the expression of a sporting culture – not to mention, at bottom, an act of of love. But because it is also the way to win.
Victory is, in the end, about generating energy. Cold, mannered pattern-play is not enough. Much has been made of the cautious nature of recent successful international teams. But France’s World Cup winners played with elan when required, and always knew they had those gears. Portugal were often stretched to their emotional limits in 2016. At some point that shotgun does have to be seized from its holdings. And that moment is probably now.
One problem England face is that caution becomes endemic. Habits settle. Such has been the fascination with solidity it is now hard to recall the last time England played with any freedom in a live competitive match that wasn’t against San Marino.
That adrenal opening 20 minutes against Croatia came close. Otherwise England’s results have become a grudging riff up and down the scales of 0-0, 1-0, 2-1, 0-1, right back to what now looks like turning point in the life of this team.
It is easy to forget that golden pre-plague period between September and November 2019 when England scored 27 goals in six games, and which now looks like a kind of grail, the England that might have been.
It seems poignant the game that changed the trajectory of the Age Of Gareth came in the middle of that spell, and against their opponents on Tuesday. England were expected to stroll past the Czechs in Prague. Southgate picked an attacking team but ended up with Mason Mount in an oddly advanced role, an unrehearsed change of shape that left the shaggy-haired Alex Kral galloping into space behind a poorly configured front-line.
This appears to have been the lasting mark of that run of games. Southgate saw the weakness in among all that attacking potency. One screening midfielder and full-backs that bombed on rapidly became something else. By the time the next game came around, a year and one pandemic later, Southgate had gone for the double-pivot, ballast for a gruelling 1-0 win in Iceland. Next up came the 0-0 in Denmark with a back three and cautious central midfield.
And this has been the pattern since though some controlled results, with a declining reserve of goals and attacking threat. There is a feeling that part of the team has been taken for granted and allowed to atrophy. Work on your strengths as well as your vices is a good plan. Tinker with your full-backs while your chief goalscorer loses his urgency, his patterns, less so.
There is time to fix this, and indeed a fine opportunity against the Czechs. It doesn’t take much in tournament football. Harry Kane will start. Perhaps he just needs to be reminded of his ruthlessness, ordered to act as the razor edge, to shoot as often as possible, to demand better, quicker service. Nobody else on this England team or staff knows as much about scoring goals. It is time for Kane to pull himself up to his full height and take charge.
There is a chance Jack Grealish might start ahead of Phil Foden, although Foden’s marginal form was replicated by Grealish when he came on against Scotland. Both have been told to stay wide. Neither does this for his club. Southgate is not renowned as a state-of-the-art attacking coach. Again, he might learn from his attacking players here.
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There will be pressure to get more from central midfield. The call will go up to play Jude Bellingham, a wonderful footballer who would offer more ball-carrying thrust. But perhaps the key lies in Southgate’s chief object of tinkering. England have some fine attacking full-backs. They have – all four of them – been largely invisible, partly by design. Getting more from these areas would be the simplest way to energise the team.
Mainly, though, it is time to stop playing for tomorrow. At some point this England team has to raise its head, to convince itself it has the gears to not just to progress in these Euros but to find a little joy, to do justice to its own talent.