England flipped the script to beat Belgium but lack of midfield creativity remains a concern
Manager Southgate's tweaks shows he has the tactical nous to devise and implement match-winning changes during 90 minutes
The script seemed wearily familiar for England. The side that took a first-half lead ended up caught out by a comeback. Early excitement turned to disappointment that prompted questions about a failure to react.
Except the twist in the plot was that this time England were the team who trailed but prevailed.
One of the most valid criticisms of Gareth Southgate was that, at the highest level, he lacked the ability to devise and implement influential mid-game changes.
Southgate had given English football a cultural reboot, changing the culture and promoting youth. When he had time to design a strategy, Plan A could be inventive and effective. When he had to think on his feet, Plan B was either inadequate or conspicuous by its absence.
So the most encouraging element of Sunday’s win over Belgium came in the difference between the first half and the second. Mason Mount’s winner came courtesy of a huge deflection but perhaps England made their own luck.
The difference came with the same 11 – and it is a separate test if Southgate can change games with substitutions – but aided by tactical tweaks.
England played higher up the pitch, closing the gaps between the sections of the side.
Southgate praised the goalscorers, Mount and Marcus Rashford, for their pressing and Kieran Trippier, who is unaccustomed to operating on the left, for his perfect positioning. Both wing-backs found space infield while Romelu Lukaku, the first half’s dominant figure, had less of an impact.
Elite-level coaching increasingly feels a question of detail. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola can be masters of micromanagement, altering players’ positions subtly and slightly.
Southgate’s success has stemmed from big-picture issues. Allying that with the ability to adjust to opponents signifies the sort of improvement from him that he likes to coax from players. And yet Kevin de Bruyne’s first-half brilliance highlighted one of England’s enduring issues.
Their lack of a midfield controller was highlighted by Luka Modric and Croatia two years ago. Southgate had one more defensive presence in midfield then, in Jordan Henderson, and now has two, but his move to 3-4-3 has cost England some of the dynamism they showed when scoring 38 goals in 2019 and has removed the job of the attacking midfielder.
For different reasons, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Maddison, Phil Foden and Ross Barkley are not in the squad, but their role has been made redundant.
Mount, the one exception, was accommodated in the forward line. A player who some think has been afforded preferential treatment by both Frank Lampard and Southgate has become an easy scapegoat, but the England manager called him: “Underappreciated, but not by us.”
Southgate is popular but not a populist, unafraid to make unpopular decisions, such as omitting Jack Grealish.
There is a broader question if the change of shape came out of confidence or concern. Was introducing a third central defender a sign he could not trust any two, especially against elite opponents? It seemed the motivation for his initial back three in the World Cup. Perhaps now, too, using wing-backs is a reaction to a lack of left-backs, Ben Chilwell excepted.
And yet England’s midfield, rarely the most creative in recent years, is stripped of more invention and attacking intent by removing its most progressive player.
Henderson and Declan Rice at least brought the drive to suggest they represent the premier partnership.
Neither, though, is a De Bruyne and England will require positional discipline, cleverness and powers of recovery if they are to add further victories, especially in adversity, against the best.
Published: October 12, 2020 03:35 PM