Something doesn’t feel right about England right now. Winless since March, they have just come out of an embarrassing Nations League campaign which included a 4-0 loss at home to Hungary. People have started to question Gareth Southgate, and more reactionary fans have even asked for his head before the start of Qatar! Ben Broadbent offers his verdict on the situation.
Fans have, for a long time, questioned England’s set up and style of play. The patience for Southgate’s pragmatic England team is wearing extremely thin. In truth, the last international break was, aside from the second half against Germany, very tricky to watch.
Even in the 2018 World Cup they only scored three goals from open play
What’s gone wrong? England have struggled to score goals. Even in the 2018 World Cup they only scored three goals from open play, and in five Nations League matches they scored zero. It’s a concerning pattern, shown by this shot map from @OptaAnalyst on Twitter.
England's non-penalty shooting performance in the 2022-23 UEFA Nations League campaign.— The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) September 23, 2022
ZERO goals. pic.twitter.com/QP66R8cgdT
England haven’t created enough. Even with an exceptional finisher like Harry Kane, just under 1.1 expected goals (xG) per game is not enough to consistently win football matches (a top team might look to create around two xG per game).
However, they have been slightly unlucky! They’ve accumulated roughly five expected goals across these matches and did not find the net once. That is very unlikely and suggests that, whilst there are certainly things to improve on, England are perhaps not as toothless as they seem.
Whilst recently he has potentially got the balance wrong, his ideology is sound
So, are England’s struggles overstated? Southgate plays defensively solid football and relies on elite attacking talent to score enough goals to win games. Whilst recently he has potentially got the balance wrong, his ideology is sound to base this England team off.
During the Euros last year, Grace Robertson wrote an excellent free article describing the difference between club football and international football, and the ‘short blanket theory’.
Robertson writes: ‘The quote originates with Brazilian former player and manager Elba de Pádua Lima, better known as Tim… his “short blanket” metaphor might be the clearest description of football’s innate challenges anyone’s ever come up with. I can’t find his full quote translated into English, but it’s essentially this: “Football is like a short blanket. If I cover my head, I uncover my feet, and vice versa.”’
In short, Southgate doesn’t have time in training to cover all bases with his players – he must prioritise either attack, or defence. Given that England’s defence is notably weaker than their attack, he covers the defence and allows the attacking players to express their talent without a particularly complex system in place. Didier Deschamps’ French side employed similar tactics in 2018 en route to becoming world champions! The system is potentially the reason Phil Foden has struggled for England yet thrives under Guardiola at City.
Should we judge Southgate on this Nations League campaign? Surely the England boss deserves to be judged based on his success at major tournaments, and not how we play against good opposition in a competition that doesn’t matter? Criticisms of England’s performances are valid; they have fallen short. But panic and claims that we have no hope in this World Cup are reactionary, and harmful to the previously positive atmosphere surrounding the England camp.
Critics will dismiss Southgate’s tournament record by saying words in effect of “as soon as we faced a good team in the tournament we lost”. Speaking on Sky Sports, Jamie Carragher argued that we should only judge the success of the national team on their performance in major tournaments.
If we look at the 2018 World Cup, there might be valid criticism. England made it through their group comfortably, beat an awkward and physical Colombia side on penalties, and then brushed aside Sweden, before coming unstuck in the semi-final against a beatable Croatia team.
This run to the final is impressive, it was built off Gareth Southgate’s brave choices, and England’s defence first mentality
Euro 2020 was a completely different story. The Three Lions conquered Croatia and Czech Republic in a tough group. Then came the knockouts: England beat Germany 2-0 in a close encounter, then impressively dismissed Ukraine 4-0, and in the semi-final came from behind to beat Denmark, who are a strong side. This run to the final is impressive, it was built off Gareth Southgate’s brave choices, and England’s defence first mentality.
Southgate will be in charge for Qatar, and there are really two choices: moan and be negative, or try to be positive and optimistic about their chances. The time for questioning Gareth Southgate is not roughly a month before the start of the World Cup, but after it. Maybe he has taken England as far as he can, maybe the players are tired of the message and need a different guiding voice.
We can’t address these hypothesies until after Qatar. Until then, Southgate deserves respect for previous success, and the opportunity to manage the team for at least one more major tournament.
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