England have not gone deep in successive major tournaments since 1970. With a squad of young, exciting players at his disposal, Gareth Southgate has the opportunity to end that and take England all the way.
Jason Burt explains the how the England manager has learned and changed his methods since the World Cup in 2018.
Selection: Watching 50 players a week
Gareth Southgate has a flip-chart. On it, every week for several months, he wrote out what the England squad would be for the European Championship: who was fit, who was available, who was in form, who was out, where the weaknesses lay, and which formations could be played.
In an era of Powerpoint presentations, data analysis and bespoke software the image of the England manager scribbling away with a marker pen feels somewhat quaint. But what was striking was how consistent the names were with each iteration of the squad: bar one or two names, the final party is similar to the one Southgate would have picked had the coronavirus pandemic not struck.
True, it has become a bit more chaotic of late thanks to Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire’s injuries, European finals and Uefa expanding the possible sizes of squads to 26, but Southgate believes he has not deviated.
Although Southgate knew the XI he wanted to choose for the opening game against Croatia, and has done for some time, he is obsessive about what he terms the “batting order”. There have been five names for each outfield position in the team throughout this season so he and his coaching staff, led by influential assistant Steve Holland, have watched at least 50 England players every week.
And that means watching every single minute of every game. The attention to detail was shown when, after football was shut down, Holland analysed every kick from Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup involving the winners Portugal and France, respectively. A document was produced for the Football Association of what it takes to be champions.
Southgate watches on, carefully
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Holland, a coaching obsessive, also took time to go through the 10 large files he has in his office at home. In them he has kept meticulous notes of every coaching session, over 250 a year, he was involved in during his eight years working as an assistant at Chelsea under seven managers, from Andre Villas-Boas to Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho to Antonio Conte.
Southgate first got to know Holland when the latter was working under Villas-Boas. Southgate went to a youth team game and the pair fell into conversation and decided to eventually team up with the England under-21s. So strong is their relationship that Holland, who leads training, addresses the players at half-time in games after Southgate has spoken.
What is clear is that the past year has allowed Southgate and his staff to move to a different level of detail. They have not just studied Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic, their Group D opponents, but have used the time to go deep into every possible opponent they can face in the tournament, especially those in Europe’s top 10, right up until the final. They have examined the coach, his tactics and the in-game changes he tends to make.
Environment: ‘The England Club’
Southgate uses technology, of course, but he likes face-to-face meetings and has found the pandemic tough. He enjoys being around the coaching staff and players, and believes how well they get on socially is a vital factor to success. Meal-times are crucial and, at England’s St George’s Park base, there will be a large number of barbecues, prepared by team chef Omar Meziane.
Southgate likes to see how the players interact, how they greet each other, how they are over breakfast. He bases a lot of his decisions on observations and wants what he terms the “knowledge bank” about who he is selecting – a process which is more difficult wearing masks and with time together restricted. It means the England squad will spend more time that ever outdoors during this tournament.
The ‘bank’ also includes gathering information from their clubs about the players so Southgate knows what motivates them and the personal issues they may be dealing with before they meet up with England.
Southgate is determined to remain consistent. His public persona is very much how he is in private and that is key to the ‘culture’ he wants to create around England, which is akin to a club environment: Southgate even refers to ‘The England Club’.
Team morale is an important part of Gareth Southgate's England
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Before the pandemic struck, Southgate and Holland would meet every Monday morning without fail at St George’s Park, near Burton-on-Trent, to review the performances of the players. They would pour over the information through Hudl, the video analysis programme that edits matches and is billed as the most comprehensive of its kind.
Southgate and Holland felt it was important to physically meet, even though neither lives near St George’s Park, rather than to discuss the material remotely as they could easily have done. So detailed were the meetings that they would often spill over into Tuesdays.
It is the closest they can get to managing the players and having the traditional ‘coaches meetings’ that clubs hold. Southgate will also talk over the phone to captain Harry Kane on a regular basis, and gather information on how his squad were doing and any personal issues they had. He and his team watched more games live – and then often re-watched them – than any of their predecessors. Before the pandemic Southgate and Holland usually took in four games, sometimes more, between them every weekend and attended midweek fixtures. It meant that players who could be deemed ‘bolters’ for Euro 2021 such as Mason Mount and Phil Foden were, in fact, well known to the England management, and always likely to make the final squad.
Behaviour: Why ‘pre-mortems’ matter
For Southgate, personal interaction is fundamental, which made the logistical impact of the pandemic all the more disruptive. For the best part of a year, the manager and his staff were unable to conduct a single training session that lasted more than an hour because of concerns about player burn-out.
But with Covid restrictions easing, Southgate has begun to create the intimate environment in which he feels England’s players thrive.
The FA has taken over the 228-bed on-site Hilton Hotel and given it a “refresh” to make it more like a “home from home” for the players who will be based there. Two staff members were deployed to oversee the changes, including the installation of an indoor cinema and turning the foyer into a basketball court.
They have opened up some of the areas to make them more welcoming, placed personal effects and photographs in player’s rooms and Southgate is keen for it to be as relaxed as possible. As Southgate puts it, “We are at home but we can’t go home.”
The 50-year-old is a student of human behaviour, voraciously consuming podcasts on the subject, as well as books such as Sapiens – the self-styled ‘brief history of humankind’. He also spent two days studying how the Mercedes Formula One team works as a guest of Toto Wolff, including being in on a pre-race briefing with Lewis Hamilton.
Southgate believes this gives him the best chance of anticipating issues that could threaten to upset a campaign – either on or off the field. It informs his approach to what he calls ‘pre-mortems’, going through scenarios with his players as to what might happen in a game before they occur.
The manager was hurt by incidents such as Maguire’s arrest in Mykonos last August and Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood being sent home in disgrace from Iceland a month later, but the effects were not long-lasting.
Euro 2021 TEAM GUIDE
Tactics: A new ‘identity’
The England coaching staff has a phrase: the evolution of the team is never ending. They look back at the 3-2 Nations League win away to Spain in October 2018 – arguably England’s most impressive performance under Southgate. The midfield that night? Ross Barkley, Eric Dier and Harry Winks. Back then it looked like a template for the future. All three are fit but none are now in the squad.
It is an object lesson: once you think there is a solution it can quickly change. The trio have just not played enough for their clubs, and picking them would have sent out the wrong message.
It is partly why Southgate eschews discussions over formations. His preference is to play 4-3-3 but one of his priorities has been to develop greater tactical flexibility. As opposed to the 3-5-2 which was his rigid plan in 2018, Southgate is unlikely to stick to one approach at the tournament: the manager has stressed this publicly and privately to the players.
For the coaching staff, the process is about getting the best out of the best players, rather than fitting personnel to a set system. Southgate has been helped by the emergence of so many good young players and that the ratio of those who are England-qualified in the Premier League is at its highest for years. Where once it was dropping down to 30 per cent it is now nudging 40 per cent, with more also featuring prominently at the most successful clubs. Having City, Chelsea and Manchester United in European finals denied Southgate precious time with 11 players but it is a sign that his core group are flourishing on the biggest stage.
The buzzword for Southgate is “identity” and, for that, the Spain game remains the template. During that match, England pressed aggressively and were dangerous on the counter-attack. Since 2018, he has drilled into the players that they need to carry a threat even when they do not have the ball, which will happen against the best teams. In that regard the World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia was a lesson in what not to do.
England's Nations League win over Spain in 2018 is a blueprint for their success
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Southgate and Holland have reviewed that match on countless occasions. They have pored over what happened and accept they, too, made mistakes – both tactically, and in the failure to refresh the team at certain times before that tie. They will take that on board in this tournament and England are likely to make more changes to the team as they progress.
In terms of style, Southgate wants his team to gain more possession and put pressure on the opponent high up the pitch. Internally, the model is Liverpool’s brilliant Champions League comeback at home to Barcelona in 2019, when Jürgen Klopp’s team overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit despite having significantly less possession.
It convinced Southgate that playing to his side’s strengths was necessary. That meant trying to follow a version of the high-tempo football that defines the Premier League, even if that has changed a little with behind-closed doors games.
Above all, Southgate wants to avoid the trap of previous tournaments, when England have defended deep in big matches and suffered “a slow death”, either in 120 minutes or subsequently on penalties. That has meant working hard on finding safer ways for England to get the ball up the pitch, having more control and more options from the bench.
Southgate knows his achievement in reaching England’s first World Cup semi-final in 28 years in 2018 has raised the bar, as has the availability of such a fine array of attacking talents. Yet he is also facing a battle against history. England have not gone deep into successive tournaments since 1970, and even then they were knocked out of the World Cup in Mexico in the last eight.
The fact is that, for possibly the first time, Southgate is under serious scrutiny. He knows he has to do well in this tournament or questions will be asked about him. The comfort is that at no point during his time as England manager has he ever believed he has cracked it. Instead he talks about the never-ending search for perfection where the question is: what have we not covered? It is why he has that flip-chart.