This England side is not very good to watch. I know, real hot take there, but it just isn’t. It’s not a free-flowing attacking side that blows teams away. No England side in my lifetime ever has been. But, as I’ve said previously, this is the most talented England squad in years; so why aren’t they scoring more, especially with a striker like Harry Kane leading the line?
Well, it’s actually partly by design. If you look at the international sides who have won tournaments recently, they’ve all done it off the back of a solid defence. Italy in 2006, Portugal in 2016, France in 2018, even the Spain sides that ruled international football between 2008 and 2012. They all had good defences that could win the game for their team. Spain’s great strength was their stranglehold on possession and their movement which enabled them to pick their way through opposition. That is the whole point of that Tiki-Taka style. Through possessing the ball and using the space intelligently, you can create extremely advantageous situations for your team to score. And the defenders were a key part of that. They could play the style the Vicente Del Bosque wanted to implement, but they were also great defenders. Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos and Raul Albiol are some of the finest defensive players of the modern age and were the foundation for players like Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, David Villa and Fernando Torres to build on and lead the team to that unprecedented period of success. Without the defence that they had, Spain would have been nowhere.
And Southgate’s decision to take a more defensive stance is not one that comes out of the blue. He did the same thing in 2018. The only game England won by more than two goals was the second group game against Panama. They actually lost three games at that tournament; a group game, the semi-final and the third-place playoff. It was not England’s attacking play that got them to the semi-final in 2018, it was a mean defence and quite often a good set play routine that would result in a goal. England’s defence has actually been one of its strengths in the run up to the Euros. They haven’t conceded a goal in eight of their last nine games; that has carried over into the tournament itself. England qualified for the knockout rounds without conceding a goal. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter what your margin of victory is, as long as you have one. If you achieve that through being very difficult to score against, then more power to you. And if Southgate is able to take the team into the latter stages of the tournament, how the team got there will be forgotten.
Just to play devil’s advocate, I will argue for a change in the set up that might allow England to be slightly more potent going forward and that will hopefully enable players like Harry Kane to be more involved and have more of an influence on the game. At the moment, Southgate is playing a 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders, usually Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice. But they are very similar in how they operate. Both Rice and Phillips are very good disruptors of play, breaking up opposition plays, recycling possession and beginning England’s attacks. Both have a good passing range and can carry the ball forward very well. Phillips was the one to provide the assist for Raheem Sterling’s winner against Croatia, after a good run into the attacking third and an excellent through pass into the box for Sterling to latch onto. But playing two defensive midfielders seems to really limit England’s ability to move the ball forward at pace.
Chelsea had great success after Thomas Tuchel switched to a back three with wing-backs and two holding midfielders. But Chelsea have the advantage of having N’Golo Kante in their squad. Kante does all the defensive side of the game, breaking up opposition attacks and popping up where the danger is to win the ball back. But Kante has so much energy and drive that he is able to supplement the attack and add another player to be able to create potential overloads. Phillips and Rice both tend to hang back to maintain a solid defensive base. If Southgate wants to keep with a flat back four, then I would want to see a switch to 4-3-3 to keep a defensive midfielder in their to act as a sweeper and to protect the defensive line. The other two midfielders would then be free to get forward and add to the attack. They would be acting far more like traditional box-to-box midfielders, sort of in the vain of Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard. If Southgate chose to switch to a back three, he could have the two midfielders in front of the defence, but he needs to give one of those players the licence to get further forward and help out the attacking side. If one of the midfielders is allowed to be further forward, Kane will not have to drop so deep to get on the ball and he can stay further up the pitch, already in a position to score.
And then, England might not be so boring to watch. Italy have proven that international sides don’t have to be boring.