Saturday, July 14, 2018

Southgate under the lens

AS THE TEARS DRY AND THE ELATION COOLS, QUESTIONS ARISE OVER ENGLAND'S EXIT IN RUSSIA

It has been a summer of love in England for England.

The football team that is.

Gareth Southgate playing for England
Image copyright © Offside


Gareth Southgate's comments about his side truly representing and uniting the country struck a resonant chord, a zeitgeist moment the history books will recall in the future.

His words were a gently veiled criticism of the homogenous look of the ruling party and its Brexit fiasco which has riven the nation in two, a schism which remains painfully unresolved.

In a week in which a brittle and embattled Prime Minister of a party without a majority saw two of her top team quit, the England manager by contrast came across as an intelligent, measured and sensitive man whose team had cruised into a World Cup semi final proving the virtues of loyalty and unity.

Unlike the government, the national team made the nation happy, if only for a short while.

For the month of June, the contrast could not have been starker and the calls for Southgate to become Prime Minister were neither unexpected nor wholly in jest. His national leadership outshone Teresa May's.

No man and no waistcoat are more popular in England right now. The Football Association has said it has no plans for an open top bus parade but they are painfully out of touch with the nation, once more.

Yet honeymoons never last forever and now, three days after England were eliminated by Croatia, the feeling of national togetherness and shared ecstasy which only the World Cup can generate has started to seep out of the building.

After a couple of days of emotional come-down, a time for tears to dry, beer to lose its taste and tension to dissipate, more focused analysis has been brought to bear on Southgate the football coach.

Perhaps inevitably, the aura surrounding England's best-dressed and most-liked man has begun to wane a little.

Talk of pride and gratitude is fading and some accusations are now being levelled at Saint Southgate regarding his side's surrendering of a lead in Moscow and their spurning of probably England's best chance of winning a second World Cup.

The charge sheet is accumulating thus:

  • While a back three remains part of his creed, should he have picked the experienced and natural centre back Gary Cahill over converted full back Kyle Walker, who was beaten to the ball for Croatia's equaliser, or John Stones, who let Mario Mandzukic ghost in behind him for Croatia's winner?
  • In addition, why did Southgate not introduce Eric Dier as an additional reducer alongside Jordan Henderson when it was clear our featherweight midfield of Delle Ali and Jesse Lingard were being overrun? 
  • Was skipper Harry Kane too big a name to withdraw when he was clearly having an off night, missing a key chance to put England 2-0 up and chugging around on his own up front?
  • Why were England thumping long balls forward in the second half instead of keeping to their principles of playing out from the back? Why did they lose mental discipline in that way?
  • Could Southgate have brought on Ruben Loftus-Cheek to combat the lack of midfield creativity? Croatia benefited from a golden playmaker which England did not have. Should the manager have picked a man with innovative boots - Adam Lallana, Jonjo Shelvey or Jack Wilshere in other words? Or should Ross Barkley be hauled back into the set-up? England are not exactly overflowing with inventive midfield generals.
  • Were England so wedded to 3-5-2 they could not reshape themselves once it was clear Croatia had learnt how to find space on the flanks in front of the wing backs? 
  • Could England seriously have hoped to have won the World Cup through set pieces alone? 75% of their goals came from corners, free kicks and penalties. 
  • Southgate's team was halfway down the table of 32 finalists for shots on target and 27th for shots on target from open play. Their other stats do not imply World Cup winners either: 11th for completed passes, 16th for dribbles, 17th for successful passes into the last third and 24th for crosses.
Et cetera. Hindsight is 20-20 and the fact one team must lose a knockout game engenders a library of reactions and theories.

All of the above might be factors in England's loss, but the biggest was probably that experience was the key factor in the Luzhniki. 

Zlatko Dalic's men came to Moscow with more than double the caps of Southgate's - 660 versus 294 and more than twice the Champions League experience too.

The gap in game management experience was clear by the end.

Croatia changed their tack and turned the screw at just the right times to unsettle their greener foes. The way their two goalscorers Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic darted in behind sleeping England defenders to strike epitomised their superior nous and game-savviness.

Those men, skilled in piercing the notoriously tough defences of Serie A with Juventus and Inter respectively, were two ruthless winners the likes of which England did not possess and we certainly had no-one in the class of Luka Modric, probably the player of the tournament so far.

The Croats, who kept us out of Euro 2008 a decade ago, were wise, battle-hardened warriors who took an hour to recover from Kieran Trippier's early strike but then found their stride, took the game by the scruff of the neck and bossed it. 

England's early optimism had evaporated by the time of Croatia's second and playing from the back had turned into hopeful punts forward to Marcus Rashford.

There are no complaints. Nobody in England is blaming the referee, outrageous fortune or dirty tricks. We all know the better team won that night.

Happily, off-field there were no riots or widespread violence like there was when England lost semi finals in 1990 and '96. Everyone felt pride that for once the Three Lions had done better than anyone had thought.

Those facts alone speak of a significant change in English football. The gap between expectation and performance has been shortened. A new England has been born, a team without egos or over-burdened by unrealistic expectation, without a shirt which weighs too heavily on young shoulders and most notably, without fear of losing matches on spot-kicks.

The nine yard jinx has been lifted at long last. English players now approach penalty shootouts confident of winning them.

The national training centre St George's Park and the England DNA project is blooming across the board: U17 & U20 World Champions, U19 European Champions and men's and women's senior teams reaching World Cup semi-finals.

The bigger picture is therefore that an evolution is in progress in football's homeland. A truly golden generation could be on its way. This appearance was the first in the World Cup for this new England.

If the crops are to fruit in the next decade, the young stars from the already successful youth sides must get domestic playing time and European experience.

With barely a third of Premier League players English, and the domestic league commercial and international in its focus, the F.A. has its work cut out if it wants to lift the trophy in Qatar or the USA.

2026 would be sixty years of hurt and nobody English wants that.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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