Gareth Southgate is pretty sober in victory, relatively steady in defeat. It is how you want your England managers to be.
For premature euphoria and dreams of what might be achieved is sport’s cruellest temptation. The Siren voices of potential glory are so enticing as to require huge restraint when envisioning success, so as not to crash on to the hidden rocks of dashed hopes.
So if Southgate’s tone remained calm in Prague on Friday night, the warning was chilling nonetheless. Since the relative success of the World Cup, it has been possible to nurture a small flame of hope that, with what amounts to a home tournament and players such as Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi coming through, England just might have half a chance at Euro 2020.
England players were left asking questions of themselves after defeat by the Czech Republic
For, when former UEFA president Michel Platini organised a tournament stretching from Baku to Dublin, he gifted England three group games at Wembley. And also a semi-final and a final there.
It seemed that for Southgate, the public fall guy of Euro ’96, here was an opportunity to rerun that glorious tournament without that awful personal denouement, a chance to rewrite his nation’s football history in bolder colours than the sludge grey kit which he wore when he missed his penalty in the Wembley semi-final against Germany.
Yet, as Southgate was quick to point out in the aftermath of an awful display against the Czech Republic, the romantics among us are getting well ahead of ourselves. There will be no Wembley homecoming playing like this.
England may sneak out of the group next year — though Friday means they are less likely to be seeded — but for those potential last-16 games and quarter-finals they will head to Copenhagen or Dublin, Rome or St Petersburg.
Dejection was etched across the faces as England lost their first qualifying match in 10 years
And without a steep improvement curve, they can forget about Wembley semi-finals. They will fall to the first good team they play. Southgate knows it.
‘It’s not for me to tell the public not to dream and not to have hope,’ he said. ‘Internally, we have to be different and be realistic and we haven’t changed our tone on that at all.
‘We know our strengths and we know the areas we have to improve upon. We’ve had evidence of it. To be a top team, with players with experience of winning the biggest matches, we’re still some way from that.
‘In a lot of the areas of the field, we’re still a young and relatively inexperienced side and some of the performances in qualifying have hidden that a little bit. But the test [in qualifying] is different to the one in the Nations League against Holland and that we’ll face against the best teams next summer.
‘We’ll have three group matches at home but we’re going to have to go on the road and play in environments like we have against the Czech Republic as well. You could have a second-round game or quarter-final in Rome against Spain or somebody like that. I’m under no illusions as to where we stand. I know there’s a huge amount of work to do.’
Admitting that there is a problem is the first step to resolution. Next comes the tricky bit. Southgate and assistant Steve Holland have been tactically innovative. Their 3-5-2 formation at the World Cup was designed to hide defensive flaws and did so admirably but at the cost of creativity from open play.
Zdenek Ondrasek scored the winner after Jordan Pickford tried a chipped pass to Danny Rose
The switch to a 4-3-3 was necessary, brought the best out of Raheem Sterling and provided a pathway for the emerging Sancho. Its peak came in that exhilarating win in Spain a year ago. All seemed well until they were outplayed by Holland last summer.
Southgate thought he had the centre-halves to ditch the back three, that John Stones, Harry Maguire and Joe Gomez were maturing fast enough to hold their own without the extra man. The reality of the goals conceded to Holland and in the second half against Kosovo showed that was a vain hope.
Stones has been injured and out of form for almost a year; Gomez was injured and cannot get in the team; Maguire is steady but in a failing Manchester United side which now seems to make good players bad.Now Southgate is contemplating a reversion back to the back three.
The reason it was not tried here and probably will not be in Bulgaria tomorrow is that he has not enough good centre-halves. The best of the bunch on form is probably Fikayo Tomori, a raw 21-year-old with five Premier League appearances and a man who would be making his England debut tomorrow.
‘We are in a difficult situation in terms of players that have played international football with us in that area of the pitch and who are playing regularly with their clubs,’ said Southgate. ‘It’s something we’ve considered and I don’t think we can dismiss. I’m not sure, ahead of Monday, if that’s the right thing to do but we’re very aware and assessing those things.’
Gareth Southgate will like experiment and bring in a new system to refresh his England side
Southgate probably cannot rush in a new system for Bulgaria, and they are a much weaker side than the Czechs so it may not be needed. But in November we can expect to see something new. The manager insists there is plenty of time pre-Euro 2020 to change shape again. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘Players take in tactical concepts very quickly. We have to keep reflecting on what’s working, what’s possible and learn.
‘We’ll learn a lot. We’ve had games that haven’t challenged us. The Czech game was a proper test and we didn’t come through, so it would be naive not to take the lessons.’
Reading between the lines, Southgate seemed to be saying he has to pick what he has at centre-half at present even though he is not especially enthused. For Michael Keane that will be hard to hear. He can expect to be dropped for Monday and, though Southgate is loyal to a point, at present Keane is not good enough.
Equally, Southgate’s excitement about Declan Rice must be cooling. He is not the answer at holding midfield. Perhaps Harry Winks might be. He will get his chance tomorrow. But it is asking a lot of a 23-year-old to hold England together.
Yet this is not just about the players. Southgate is so personable and reasonable that he gets away with selections that might once have seen a vegetable superimposed on an England manager’s face.
Presumably Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell were dropped because of the defensive debacle against Kosovo but that ignored the last four weeks of good form for their clubs, which Danny Rose had not replicated.
Southgate hinted he will work with what he has in defence, which isn’t good for Michael Keane
Southgate and Holland planned the 4-2-3-1 shape which left Jordan Henderson and Rice exposed. Asking Mason Mount, with all of eight Premier League games, to link the midfield as No10 proved too heavy a burden. He played almost as a second striker with Harry Kane, which left huge gaps.
So why did the change come at half-time rather than after 20 minutes, when it was clear how the game was developing? There is a pattern here. Southgate was slow to react in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia, unable to change the flow of the game against Holland in the Nations League, late with his substitutes as his team fell apart against Kosovo.
He and Holland got it right, most of the time, in Russia. ‘We found a way to progress through the World Cup with a relatively inexperienced team and that’s what we’re always trying to do: to find solutions to bring some good players through.’
Yet if there is to be a new plan, it needs to be better than the last one. A return to a 3-5-2 would be a regression: Sterling would be stymied, Sancho and Hudson-Odoi would struggle to find a role, England would lose their attacking potency. Holland and Southgate may look at a 3-4-3.
Southgate has done so much for English football. But his next challenge is his sternest yet. England travelled to Russia in 2018 as innocents abroad, surprising a nation with low expectations. That will not be the case next summer. England will expect. He has enough fine players to replicate Terry Venables’ team and, with luck, to surpass them.
Now he must show he has evolved into a coach capable of that.
WHAT SOUTHGATE NEEDS TO SORT OUT
A 3-5–2 made England solid but stodgy, 4-3-3 made them exciting but porous. But a 4-2-3-1 was even worse in the first half against the Czech Republic. Southgate needs a new England but is running out of options.
THE HOLDING MIDFIELDER
If England want to play out from the back, they need a player who can receive the ball on the half-turn from the centre-halves. This allows teams to beat the opposition press, open up attacking options but also avoid putting your defence under pressure. Declan Rice isn’t that player. Harry Winks might do it better. But there isn’t a long queue of candidates.
Southgate switched to a 4-3-3 because he felt Harry Maguire and John Stones had grown into world-class defenders at the World Cup and could cope. Since then Stones has had battles with fitness and lost from. Joe Gomez might have come in but has mirrored Stones. Michael Keane isn’t the answer. Fikayo Tomori might be one day. But England badly need a rejuvenated Stones and Gomez back in the mix.
In terms of communication and the tone of voice of the England national team, Southgate has been outstanding. Navigating the World Cup with a 3-5-2 while exploiting set-pieces showed real coaching intelligence. Yet he is slow to react when things go wrong. And that’s a fatal flaw: often it’s too late by the time changes are made.
For England to win a major trophy, the philosophy of playing out from the back needs to stay. They just need to learn when to do it and when to keep it safe and simple. England keeper Jordan Pickford should have gone long in England’s defeat to Czech Republic while John Stones’ decision to keep hold of the ball under pressure cost Southgate’s side a place in the Nations League final.