Southgate’s low block is a dependable but dangerous game to play as Qatar looms large

Southgate’s low block is a dependable but dangerous game to play as Qatar looms large
Once the darling of his nation, Gareth Southgate looks like he is running out of ideas for England
Once the darling of his nation, Gareth Southgate looks like he is running out of ideas for England
If we’ve learnt anything from Gareth Southgate’s (52) tenure as England manager so far, it’s that he doesn’t care if you don’t like the way they play and, importantly, it’s not going to change anytime soon. But, as their form deteriorates and the World Cup rapidly approaches, it begs the question - shouldn't it?

You certainly can’t be criticised for not winning everything in world football especially when you are not the best team in the world. But, heading into his third major tournament, it really must be crunch time for Southgate now in terms of evaluating his stint in the England dugout.  

If he wins the World Cup, his work is arguably done and his tenure will have been an unqualified success. If he doesn’t, it must be time to move on to another manager and try a different tack to elevate this excellent crop of English players to the next level. 

While his time in charge has been broadly successful, discontent in his approach has never been too far away and tends to rear its ugly head at the slightest of instigation.

A fair bit of the criticism directed from the media towards Southgate is concerned with his England team being too passive, too defensive and, ultimately, a little too boring given the array of talent at his disposal.

Considering the impressive set of players England has - possibly their most exciting batch of attackers ever, certainly in a long time - it’s often noted that Southgate’s footballing philosophies are not making the most of this current generation’s best abilities. 

Southgate often prefers to play a 3-4-3 system with the midfield two being both relatively defensively minded. This means he tends to play with what becomes a 7-3 split between defending and attacking players. We’ve seen him revert to a more adventurous 4-3-3 at times but he only seems to deploy that system in matches in which they expect to dominate possession.

The idea seems to be this - if they are playing a weaker team, they can afford to go with a more aggressive, proactive approach. If they are playing a stronger team, they will remain quite conservative to mitigate the risks.

Really, it’s all very sensible. Painfully, terribly, sensible.  

Southgate’s philosophical rationale rests on the idea that playing an open and expansive style of football is not what wins major tournaments historically. Thus, despite the internal pressure to do just that, his approach has been to play a more defensive and highly organised style and grind out results on an inglorious path towards trophies. 

The trophies are yet to come but, in a way, this approach has worked in that it has taken England further than they were previously going in tournaments. They have been honing and executing a style of 'tournament football' and it has been a success. First a semi, then a final and then… well, we’ll see what's next.

In the last two major tournaments, the 2018 World Cup in Russia and Euro 2020, England have not only progressed further and further but their results improved across those tournaments, too. In an objective sense, this is a relative success for England - a country that has historically struggled at major tournaments and has only ever won one major trophy (the World Cup in 1966).

In Russia, they ground their way to a World Cup semi-final appearance and in seven matches, they scored 12 and conceded eight times. However, if you ignore the outlier result against Panama (a 6-1 demolition), they scored six and conceded seven in six matches - hardly impressive numbers.

In the COVID-delayed Euro 2020 last year, they tightened their defence up even further and remarkably only conceded twice in the whole tournament. They scored 11 goals in seven matches before losing the final on penalties to Italy, a gut-wrenchingly unlucky way to leave any tournament.

The Euros was a great run of results but perhaps the true zenith of Southgate’s reign. 

Since then they seem to have first plateaued and then suddenly plummeted. While the broader arc of Southgate's tenure may look promising at a glance, more recently, ominous signs have been brewing on the pitch for England.

They have now not won a competitive match in six attempts and struggled to score goals in the Nations League this year. Not only have they been embarrassingly relegated to League B, finishing rock bottom of their group with zero wins and a goal difference of minus six, but they only scored once in their first five of those matches (courtesy of a Harry Kane (29) penalty).

They finished the group phase with four goals for and 10 against - alarming reading for a side of England’s stature.

But hang on, wasn’t this supposed to be results-based football?

Love his approach or loathe it, Southgate did well in his first two tournaments particularly the Euros last summer, but now it seems he is no longer producing the results to justify the less glamourous stylistic elements of his game plan. So what are we left with? 

Well, we are left with the rather sad possibility that England are now not just a boring team but a bad one, too.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The 3-3 draw with Germany on Monday saw some green shoots emerging out of a poor Nations League campaign.

After going 2-0 down, England showed tremendous character to wrestle the game back after the introduction of Bukayo Saka (21) and Mason Mount (23). The injection of creativity gave them impetus and ideas almost immediately and they were unlucky not to win in the end.

But why don’t they just play like that all the time? 

Southgate’s stubborn attachment to his philosophies means he has steadfastly stuck to his ways throughout. That means unwavering loyalty to the players he likes - even hugely underperforming ones like Harry Maguire (29) - and a commitment to the defensive shape and system he prefers.

In a way, this commitment is admirable. He has the courage of his convictions. If he believes this is the best approach, he should stick to it. The problem is, as the performances diminish and the wins entirely disappear, one wonders - is this actually the best approach? Or has this philosophy perhaps run its course with this group of players?

Time will, most certainly, tell. And the churning wheel of time is now gravely looming over this underperforming England team with their first game at the World Cup only 53 days away.

Will the results-based, low-block football that has characterised Southgate’s reign get them far in Qatar? Will they grind out the results they haven’t been getting this year?

Or, will they simply grind to an incredibly underwhelming halt at the first major hurdle?

With every game they play, their Group B opponents of Wales, USA and Iran are somehow looking more and more dangerous by the day.

Follow all the action from the World Cup on Flashscore.


France gouvernement

Les jeux d’argent et de hasard peuvent être dangereux : pertes d’argent, conflits familiaux, addiction…

Retrouvez nos conseils sur (09-74-75-13-13, appel non surtaxé)

Do you want to withdraw your consent to display betting ads?
Yes, change settings