Gareth Southgate's use of Jack Grealish as an impact sub aganst Germany paid off
Stick to the plan
It should now be abundantly clear that Gareth Southgate is not going to be swayed by the court of public opinion and he has drilled that into his players. What he has done is map out this campaign – from winning the group, to knowing that the last-16 tie was always likely to be against a strong nation from Group F to pacing England, hopefully, to the final.
For example, he knew that winning the group meant England had another tie at Wembley and a clear week to prepare including a day more than their opponents, who had to travel. It gave him more time to change England’s system.
Southgate has shown flexibility in training in different formations and with different personnel, so nothing has been sprung on the players.
They knew at some stage – most likely in the last 16 – that they would revert to three at the back, while Southgate has taken time to speak to the likes of Jack Grealish and explain the importance of using him from the bench.
This is tournament football. It is not about winning group matches 4-0 and running out of steam when it comes to what Harry Kane has called the “important games”. Southgate is attempting to build momentum and belief and knows that if he suddenly changes his approach it will look, to the players, like he has lost his nerve.
England 2 Germany 0 – Euro 2020
Follow Portugal and France
Steve Holland, Southgate’s assistant, spent the first lockdown studying every kick of every game that Portugal played to win Euro 2016 and then France’s successful campaign to triumph in the 2018 World Cup. Holland produced a document on “how to win” for the Football Association, while Southgate took on board the idea that maybe being low-risk but in control would be the way forward. Before the World Cup qualifiers in March he even cited the examples of Portugal and France. “They are savvy and experienced winners,” Southgate said, and that was influenced by Holland’s dossier.
But this is also a very different approach from defending deep and hanging on for penalties – waiting for what is termed the “slow death” – that characterised England’s tournament failures before Southgate.
England have tried to hit their opponents hard at key stages
They have also become increasingly positive as the tournament has progressed, culminating, so far, in Southgate’s demands to physically dominate Germany, win the one-on-ones and take their chances when they arrive. It helped that England were backed by such incredible support at Wembley, something Southgate had also factored into his preparations.
Kalvin Phillips (right) made his presence felt
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
It is the ultimate squad game
England have not played the same XI for 34 games – the last time was in the World Cup in 2018 when Southgate fielded the same team in the semi-final against Croatia that faced Sweden in the last eight. He is the English “Tinkerman” and has eschewed the notion that the “outside noise” (as he puts it) insists that he has a “best XI” and sticks to it.
Pep Guardiola does not do that
Southgate has challenged this perceived wisdom by continually altering his team and his formation and has done it to such an extent that his squad are comfortable with it. Southgate has trust in his players that they can cope and that is partly because he is also good at keeping the lines of communication open. For example, Southgate said he would rotate the three players who would have to be left out of his 23-man match-day squad, under Uefa rules, and has done just that.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Southgate has said this to the players. Well, for England it already has happened. They could not have performed more badly than they did in losing to Iceland in Euro 2016, in being dumped out of the Brazil World Cup after little more than a week and stinking the place out at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
That is without mentioning the serial failures in penalty shoot-outs with, of course, Southgate missing from the spot in the Euro ’96 semi-final. It hurt him, it scarred him, but he survived and he is the England manager.
Sometimes that fear of failure is even greater than failure itself and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Southgate has removed that fear and created a safety net that means the players can perform with a bit more freedom in their minds as to what might happen.
It is no coincidence that Southgate and the players have the same message: there is no point “fearing the past”. This is about creating their own history – and that is also why he makes a point of ticking off the boxes when achievements are made such as winning a group without conceding or, of course, beating Germany in a major finals for the first time since 1966.
The papers all covered England's victory over Germany on the front pages
The England Way
This has become a phrase that has been bandied around the England camp and was even recently mentioned by Marcus Rashford. “We want to win ‘the England Way’ – show some good football, work hard for each other and score and create goals,” he said, and while Southgate acknowledges his team have not been as free-flowing as that and need to improve, there is an identity that he is hammering home. Not an England DNA, as such, but what it means to play for England. A few years ago the FA even termed it “Club England” and Southgate has referred to the “England Club” because he wants being part of the squad to be similar to being part of a football club. It is partly why he endorsed the idea of “legacy numbers” for players and showed his squad a video on their part in England’s 150-year history.
It hugely helps that he has a young squad – a deliberate ploy – who are largely schooled through the England age groups and Premier League academies. The poster boy for that is Mason Mount, who is the kind of well-balanced, intelligent footballer who is the template for the future.
It also creates harmony. This is the most settled and happy England squad in living memory. Rashford even spoke about putting off a shoulder operation to ensure he could play at these Euros, even though it may harm his chances of being fit for Manchester United’s start to the season. That would never have happened with previous generations.