Growing up as a fan of the English national football team hasn’t been easy. My first vivid memory was of the 2006 World Cup, and of angrily storming out of the room in a manner which was only slightly less petulant than Rooney’s stamp. As I’ve grown older and watched more football and supported my home country, all I was ‘rewarded’ with was dreary 0-0 draws, insipid displays of tactics resulting in one or two nil losses and making your 6’2” talismanic centre forward Harry Kane take corners.
Southgate’s fairly dismal past credentials didn’t inspire the enthusiasm that England had lacked throughout this decade
But how has England become so rejuvenated, playing with a new lease of life? One important component, for me, has been successfully rectifying our existential crisis and instilling an effective and modern footballing identity that maximizes our strengths. Roy Hodgson was the epitome of the broader ideological clash at the heart of English football. In retrospect, hiring Hodgson at a time when there was a desire to modernise English tactics and replicate the scintillating attacking football of the continental powerhouses was the kind of absurdity that used to be restricted to satire. I was forced to watch Hodgson’s entire England career unfold, which, on an entertainment level, was closer to watching the paint of the white and red of St George’s drying than a football match.
Though Hodgson favoured the more archetypal defensive low block that British teams are now famous for against ‘elite’ international sides, he would still often find himself in matches with a majority of possession and forced to carve out chances, often looking unconvincing doing so. Watching that Iceland game was emblematic of Hodgson being incapable of implementing tactics that used possession to create chances. I believe Allardyce also would’ve suffered the same fate. But after Allardyce was filmed doing the unforgivable and drinking wine out of a pint glass, the FA were forced to sack him and appoint Gareth Southgate. His fairly dismal past credentials didn’t inspire the enthusiasm that England had lacked throughout this decade. But nothing changes perception like victory, and Southgate has become our most affable national hero, and key to our success is the distinct and effective tactical identity which draws inspiration from many sources.
A key cog to our attacking play is to use our wing backs, who will interchange with our attacking midfielders in the half space
The clearest influence has been Antonio Conte, which isn’t surprising as Southgate’s assistant is Steve Holland, who worked as Conte’s assistant in their title winning season. The back three is modelled off Conte’s Chelsea back three, with Stones acting as the cornerstone by sitting in the centre acting as a sweeper much like David Luiz. Though Stones doesn’t have Luiz’s long passing range, his composure and vision to pass out of the back alongside his willingness to make incisive runs forward makes him ideal for that role.
Additionally, the way we’ve used and developed our wingbacks resembles Conte’s. A key cog to our attacking play is to use our wing backs, who will either interchange with our attacking midfielders in the half space or take the ball down the wing for crossing opportunities. Kieran Trippier has revelled in providing attacking width whilst being less defensively burdened, creating the third most chances of the tournament, working his way forward like another attacking fullback (Marcos Alonso) that thrived in Conte’s system. Ashley Young can also be proud of his performances, dissuading any grumbles asking for his replacement with an impressive performance against Sweden, just as Victor Moses put a mediocre career behind him to become a starter for Conte.
Walker’s willingness to drive forward with the ball from defence makes us more dynamic
There’s also the influence of Pep Guardiola, which can be seen in numerous choices made by Southgate. Whilst Pickford’s ascension to England’s choice at number one only seemed ordained by hindsight, the reality was that major contenders for the spot had unimpressive seasons and Pickford’s distribution was the edge over Butland and Pope. In English football at least, this has been a trademark Guardiola obsession who went to great lengths to have a goalkeeper who excels at distribution to negate high pressing. Pickford’s excellent reflexes have cemented his status as England’s goalkeeper, but it’s undeniable Southgate chiefly values Pickford for his distribution, saying: “Pickford, for me, is a sort of prototype of what a modern goalkeeper should be […]. The number of touches goalkeepers have with their feet is exceptionally high in the modern game, especially in international and European football […]. But the saves Jordan made today at critical times, and his distribution in picking out Trippier with a reverse pass – we need goalkeepers of that ilk moving forward.”
Another interesting aspect is Kyle Walker at right centre-back in the back three. This initially drew criticism with some justification – Walker has a reputation for lapses in concentration and lacking positional awareness. But Walker has increasingly played more centrally, either positioning himself as a third CB or moving in as an inverted fullback; Southgate starting him at RCB is an extension of Walker’s new role for Guardiola’s Centurions. His willingness to drive forward with the ball from defence makes us more dynamic, and his blistering pace coupled with intuitive understanding of defending as an RB has given Trippier the freedom to consistently drive down the wing. Whether Walker will remain solid against a more aggressive team is an open question, but nevertheless he’s been utilised well in a role benefitting the team.
Such a focus on set pieces is uncommon in modern football and it’s to Southgate and his staff’s credit that they’ve exploited this
It would be unfair to disregard Southgate’s- and the other England coaches’- iconoclastic manoeuvres in set pieces. If there’s one quintessential aspect of English football we’ve retained, it’s our set piece prowess. No longer a meme ridiculing Hodgson’s tenure, England now execute specific pre-trained manoeuvres to create space for teammates and disorientate the opposition. The Wall Street Journal published an article about how Southgate’s curiosity toward NBA games led to his co-opting of basketball moves for set pieces, such as executing a back screen for John Stones’ first goal against Panama. This cross-pollination from different sports has prior precedents (even for set pieces); Ronald de Boer suggested co-opting picking from basketball and Louis van Gaal implemented it into his eventual Champions League winning Ajax. But such a focus on set pieces is uncommon in modern football and it’s to Southgate and his staff’s credit that they’ve exploited this to our benefit. When you consider Southgate’s inclination to look far and wide for new solutions, and the training time necessary to seamlessly pull them off, it isn’t surprising England have rescued their strength on set pieces from the clutches of Hodgson and Harry Kane’s delivery. Even the English footballing staples now have a new twist to them.
I’m writing this on the eve of the first semi final I’ve ever seen us play, not only impressed but genuinely excited by our performances. It’s true we haven’t faced world class opposition and still have weaknesses in our systems, most notably a dearth of good number 8-type midfielders in the mould of David Silva or Luka Modric. Without that kind of central midfielder, it’s hard to play the incisive, vertical passes which are needed to control central midfield and attack through the centre. Unfortunate injuries throughout the season to Adam Lallana and Harry Winks, as well as Jack Wilshere’s career-defining struggle for fitness, have meant our current squad doesn’t have that profile of player present- and even had Winks, Lallana and Wilshere been available, they are nowhere near the best players for this job. To their credit, Alli and Lingard have so far stepped up to the challenge of playing as the more advanced CMs, but they simply cannot dictate the tempo the way the best central midfielders can.
But seeing Southgate making bold, principled choices informed by an effective tactical system has been a refreshing change of pace from the failures of the Golden Generation and the retrograde management of Capello and Hodgson. Even if England only reach the semis, there’s good reason to be excited with the future as our success this tournament is as much in an ideological rebranding as in our results on the pitch. With our youth team successes – teams that emphasize technique and footballing intelligence – and the continued development of players both in the current squad and on the precipice of the squad, there may be reason to hope for a more fruitful and enthralling era for the England national team. Of course, it’s an imperative we avoid the vice of hyping up our crop of talent into another ‘Golden Generation’. However, Southgate’s refreshing humility and steadfast dedication to creating an effective tactical identity should give us reason to be optimistic.