For so long England were criticised for a lack of game-management; a lack of nous and an inability to see out matches especially in tournament football. The “slow death”, they call it.
They exited the 2014 World Cup after just eight days and Wayne Rooney sat in their suddenly redundant training base in Rio de Janeiro, in the shadow of Sugarloaf mountain, and spoke softly about the need to be more streetwise.
Given his England career began in 2003 Rooney was well-placed to analyse tournament failures and although, for a while, the regime of Roy Hodgson was lauded for a more pragmatic approach, in reality England were merely limited, and his reign ended in one of the most humiliating – and naïve – defeats of them all against Iceland.
It is through that prism, and the shortcomings of the England teams coached by Fabio Capello and Sven-Goran Eriksson, that Gareth Southgate’s approach to Euro 2020 must be assessed.
It was telling that the manager sat his players down last weekend and showed them statistics to prove that it is often nations who do not start tournaments with outstanding, 100 per cent records who go on to win them, with Portugal the most obvious case in point. They drew all three of their group games at Euro 2016 before triumphing.
Portugal drew all three of their Euro 2016 group games and still went on to win
Credit: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
With that, England’s seven points from three matches is a respectable return, as is the three clean sheets they have collected. In fact England have conceded only one goal in their last nine games, winning eight of them – albeit none of those matches have been against an elite team.
The challenge that awaits next Tuesday – most likely against Germany, Portugal or France – will be very different but at least Southgate finally has an extended period of time on the training pitches at St George’s Park to prepare – four clear days, after today’s recovery day, which he has not had since the last World Cup.
So – what does England’s safety-first football look like?
The question now is whether England need to leaven their pragmatism with a little more adventure. Conservative performances in the group stage can be excused given the disruption caused to England by injuries and Covid curveballs: indeed, there is a sense that England have used the group fixtures almost like warm-up matches.
But if England were to tumble out of the tournament in the last 16 on the back of three cautious displays, that would be harder to justify, particularly with the attacking talent Southgate has to call on. It is beyond dispute that England have not unleashed that potential yet; instead both he and his assistant Steve Holland, who was schooled at the pragmatic winning machine of Chelsea, have demanded control, hence the slow tempo of much of England’s football.
Englands Slow build-up
It is difficult to see England deviating from several clear tactical trends that have emerged from their first three games, especially given there is now no margin for error going into knockout football. There has been an effort to start matches strongly, establish a lead and then use their pace to hit teams on the break: that plan worked against the Czechs, and almost did against Scotland and Croatia, only for England to twice strike the woodwork.
England’s pattern: start strong and fade
England have largely played 4-3-3 but implemented it in a conservative way. Apart from the opening half hour against the Czechs the full-backs – such an area of strength – have been largely withdrawn, being limited largely to work inside their own half.
This is one of the reasons why England have delivered relatively few crosses compared to other teams at the Euros. There has also been a dearth of quality in the ones they have provided.
Crossing lacks quality – and quantity 01
Crossing lacks quality – and quantity 02
The flip-side of that is that England have been good at denying the opposition chances and even touches in their penalty area, and playing two defensively-minded midfielders in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips has offered even greater protection.
The importance of that solid base was spelled out by Bukayo Saka in the wake of his electrifying performance against the Czechs. "Of course it is going to be much harder teams but we can take a lot of confidence having not conceded a single goal," he said. "Going into the next game, whoever we come up against, we go into it with real confidence."
Opponents kept at arm’s length
Substitutions also offer an insight into the Southgate mindset. The key replacement against the Czechs was the decision to take off Jack Grealish – to some grumbling from the Wembley crowd – and replace him with Jude Bellingham in the 68th minute. It established a midfield triangle with Henderson and Phillips which enabled England to see out the game.
England Conservative substitutions (Bellingham touchmap)
“Tournament football, for sure, is different to league football because over the league period you have to look after your performances because over that amount of games you always end up where you deserve,” Maguire explained.
“I know everyone wants to play well and create numerous chances but teams are well-drilled and organised. Tournament football is about big moments in big games and not giving the opponents big moments to score from.”
That statement certainly feels like something Southgate has said to the players: big moments in big games. “The fundamentals are there,” Maguire added and there is no disputing that – as in Russia – England have given themselves a base. They have boxed clever even if there is a demand for more expansive football.
Three years ago their approach, and a relatively kind fixture list, took them to the semi-finals. It will be harder this time round, without a doubt, and the question is whether Southgate can find the right balance between making England more threatening without also making them too vulnerable.
So far he has got it just about right but the real test now begins. If he fails Southgate knows he will stand accused of holding England back.