England are boring. So what?
Gareth Southgate has been accused of playing things a little too safe for England, but that's how you win international tournaments
The Athletic’s Carl Anka joined my co-hosts and I on The Busby Babe podcast last week in what was a truly remarkable and enjoyable 90 minutes conversation (if you haven’t heard it yet check it out here). While we were supposed to talk about Manchester United, we naturally started off talking about Euro 2020, England, Gareth Southgate, and international managers.
When discussing Southgate Carl said some things that were really interesting and really made me think. The job of an international manager - specifically the England one - is far more complicated then it appears.
Now let me say this. I’m not English. I don’t live in the U.K. so I can’t say that I fully understand what the pulse of the people in England truly is. I am an England fan who does follow the team from afar and certainly makes an effort to try and gage what the pulse of the people living there is. Everything I’m about to write comes from that perspective.
Southgate has never been the most popular England manager. He wasn’t a big name and he sort of stumbled into the job in a right place right time sort of way. It always seemed like it was going to be temporary, until it wasn’t.
In 2018 Southgate did a good job with what he had. Trent Alexander-Arnold had only been a first choice Liverpool player for six months. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were coming off great years but never hit those heights again. I mean, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck were in that England squad!
Fast forward to 2021 and it’s a different story. Alexander-Arnold is one of the best attacking right backs on the planet, Jadon Sancho has emerged as a legitimate superstar, Jack Grealish has done the same, and Phil Foden has proven to be worth the endless hype Pep Guardiola spewed about him. This is a team that has gone from having a few good attacking pieces to being flooded with legitimate top of the line attacking options.
And yet, Gareth Southgate keeps playing it safe. He keeps opting for two holding midfielders. He still wants to be able to play with a back three which would just leave you with less room for those attackers. He still picks the vastly under-appreciated Mason Mount - one of those ‘attacking midfielders’ who’s more known for his defensive abilities then attacking ones - game after game1.
The games become tedious if not boring. England are defensively solid but lack that something going forward while players like Grealish and Sancho sit on the bench. Hell, Sancho didn’t even make the 23 man squad for the Croatia match!
This shouldn’t be happening. England have SO MUCH attacking talent. Why won’t Southgate just put them on the pitch and let them cook?
Gareth Southgate is not dumb.
As Carl mentioned on the pod, Southgate has spoken about trying to emulate what France and Portugal are doing. That’s both on the pitch and off.
Southgate wants the England team to feel like a team and not just a collection of players. He wants it to be it’s own ecosystem where you’re judged on what you do or can do for England and not just on ‘who’s playing the best for their club at the moment?’ That’s not to say club form doesn’t matter at all, but if you hit a rough patch of form you don’t have to worry about losing your England place.
Southgate has done a fantastic job of handling this squad while also being able to leave players out so he can look at new players without them feeling like they’ve lost their place.2 Sure he probably could have handled the Mason Greenwood situation last summer a bit better but no ones perfect.
This is akin to what France has. French players LOVE playing for France. They all openly gush about how much they love being the French team whenever they get a chance. That’s what Southgate wants to build with England.
He’s also very much looking at what France and Portugal did on the pitch as well. Seeing as they’ve won the last two major tournaments, that’s a pretty good place to look.
Portugal have always been a team with attacking talent and flair. Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, are just a few of the names of good attacking players they had. They’d show up to every tournament trying to provide enough defensive balance so their attacking players could do what they do best.
It never worked.
Then came Euro 2016. Portugal didn’t have the team then that they have now but they were still no slouches. Yet they played the most disgusting brand of football you’ll ever see. Compact, defensive, boring-ass football. Like watching a Jose Mourinho team, but worse. Portugal finished every game of that tournament level after 90 minutes, but with the 24 team format that was enough to go to the knockouts. They won.
Boring, but effective.
Fast forward to 2018. France goes to Russia with just an embarrassment of riches in their squad. Griezmann, Mbappe, Pogba, Ousmane Dembele, - who was coming off a monster year - and enough defensive midfielders and great defenders that they should be able put all their attacking talent on the pitch and run over teams.
In their opening match against Australia that’s exactly what Didier Deschamps did. France came out in a 4-3-3 with Paul Pogba on the left of midfield next to N’Golo Kante and Corentin Tolisso. Up top Griezmann started down the middle flanked by Mbappe and Dembele.
It worked, barely. France escaped with a very narrow 2-1 victory that never looked as lopsided as it should have been. For all that attacking talent they mustered 11 shots for an non-penalty xG of just 0.54 a paltry 0.05 xG per shot.
Deschamps immediately binned the 4-3-3 and dropped Tolisso and Dembele, replacing them with a narrow 4-2-3-1 that saw Blaise Matuidi coming inside to help in midfield, with Olivier Giroud up top and Griezmann playing as the number 10.
Giroud started every remaining match but famously didn’t score a goal in the tournament. That wasn’t a problem because it wasn’t his role. Giroud wasn’t in there so much to be a ‘hold up’ player but more of a ‘play off him’ player to try and get the best out of France’s other superstars.
I can’t really explain how crazy this is. We only talk about a striker’s hold up play because were trying to find nice things about him when he doesn’t/can’t score goals. Top teams don’t waste time on strikers who can’t score goals. That’s something that an underdog does when you know you’re going to need all 11 guys to put in a defensive shift, and then you need someone further up the pitch to help you change the field position and get the ball to your superstar in hopes he does something magical.
France won but they never really looked like they got out of second gear. Over the course of the tournament they only averages 48.57% possession. Other than a thrilling 4-3 win over Argentina, they didn’t really play very entertaining games.3 They very much played within themselves relying on great defensive structure, counter attacks, and set pieces.
What Deschamps did was get everyone to buy into the collective. Your individual talent is no good unless the team can harness it. That’s how you win international tournaments.
Think back to previous international tournaments. Greece won in 2004 behind defense and set pieces. It was almost impossible to score on Italy in 2006. Germany had loads of talent but played with four centerbacks across the back four. Only Spain’s dominance from 2008-2012 gave us something slightly different. It wasn’t defensive, it was just death by possession and don’t be wrong, it still wasn’t exciting. It was all the ground and territorial dominance of Barcelona but without Messi once in a while doing some other worldly shit.
International teams don’t get a lot of time on the training ground. When you don’t get a lot of time there’s two things you can master that will give you a chance, defensive organization and set pieces. Grasp those two things and you’ll dramatically increase your chance of success.
Fans want to see the attacking talent run wild at tournaments but that’s simply not the time. Tournaments come at the end of grueling seasons that have completely tired out the players. On top of that, the hot temperatures only drain the players more. Having your tired attackers go all out against a well organized defense isn’t going to be very effective.
As so, the best teams embrace defense and set pieces. England ran to the semifinals thanks to being very good on set pieces4 while France won the tournament thanks to them.5 It’s not the most exciting brand of football but it yields results.
That’s how you have to play in international tournaments. Then when you reconvene for the nations league or qualifiers in September, October, and November - when the players have had breaks and are now at the beginning of the season aka their freshest - you could play those 4-3-3’s and let your talent run wild.
That’s exactly what Southgate did following the 2018 World Cup and England had success with it going to the Nations League semifinals. They then ran rampant in qualifying. France too have shown us different looks in the games between the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020. Diamond midfields, two striker formations etc. They played some really entertaining football and ran teams off the pitch. That’s what the fans want to see. It only becomes difficult in March when the manager has to balance ‘get results’ with ‘I’ve gotta prepare for this upcoming tournament.’
But come tournament time, it’s right back to tournament football. France had just 38 percent of the ball against Germany and were more than happy to play that way. England left loads of their exciting attackers on the bench. They unveiled a ton of new plays on set-pieces letting you know how much Southgate values those. They kept control of the whole match but outside those set pieces they weren’t too threatening. The match as a whole was a slog.
It’s not fun, but if you’re trying to win an international football tournament now isn’t the time to be fun. It’s the time to be boring because as much as it sucks for fans, boring works.
Mason Mount is under-appreciated and there’s a reason that Frank Lampard, Thomas Tuchel, and Gareth Southgate all love him. He’s a vital piece that allows your other players to thrive.
Kyle Walker and Kieren Trippier are two great examples
The final against Croatia turned into an entertaining affair, but only after France went 1-0 up (thanks to a penalty of course) and Croatia opened themselves up and became vulnerable to counter attacks
And the bracket breaking perfectly for them
and they only got to the final thanks to a set-piece goal in the semifinal