Playing those on yellow cards, public backing for Harry Kane… Southgate continues to lead England towards Euros glory
England’s masterplan to win Euro 2020 remains on track and Gareth Southgate remains at the centre of it all, navigating his team’s path through the tournament.
Here Jason Burt looks at the nine very deliberate decisions Southgate has made to steer England to within two matches of a first major tournament win since 1966.
Faith in Maguire and Henderson
Picking injured players is nothing new with England and regularly attracts criticism. But in the past it has stemmed from blind faith that David Beckham or Wayne Rooney would recover in time, and has been perceived as a sign of weakness from a manager. But Gareth Southgate would not have selected either Maguire or Henderson for these Euros if Uefa had not increased the possible size of squads from 23 to 26 and if he had also not had detailed conversations with both players to not only assess their fitness but make it clear to them that they would not automatically go back into the team.
Maguire declared himself fit before the Scotland game but was held back for the final group match against the Czech Republic while Henderson is yet to start but has had his role explained to him. Both have made crucial contributions, and justified their inclusion.
Changes in formation
Southgate was not only accused of not knowing his ‘best team’ going into the Euros – a concept which he has always railed against – but not knowing how he wanted them to play. Not just that but there was a huge debate prior to the last 16 tie against Germany over the merits of matching up Joachim Low and switching to a ‘back-three’ in defence.
For many, doing so felt like an admission by Southgate that Germany were a superior team and so he had to copy their formation and try and stop them rather than have faith in the 4-2-3-1 approach he had used in the group games.
His switch worked to spectacular effect as England nullified Germany’s attacking threat through their wing-backs. It also showed the value of training in different systems.
Holding back Grealish
The Aston Villa playmaker has become a poster boy for those disgruntled with Southgate’s approach. Every teamsheet that is delivered without Grealish in the XI – and he has only started one game so far – has led to a furious response. When Grealish warms up his name is chanted.
But Southgate has managed him well. The 25-year-old is recovering from a long lay-off and was held back perfectly for his late introduction against Germany that won the tie for England. He was involved in both goals.
Yet Southgate ignored the clamour to start him against Ukraine believing that England would need more pace out wide. Grealish still remains a brilliant game-changer to bring off the bench and Southgate sought him out for a private word after the win over Ukraine, presumably to reassure him that he still has a vital role to play.
Leaving out Foden
Foden, with his dancing feet and his homage to Paul Gascoigne in his bleach blond hair, was another of the squad’s marquee names before the tournament. And the way he started the tournament, hitting the post in the opening minutes against Croatia and starting the Scotland game, suggested he was here to stay. But Southgate’s treatment of the 21-year-old has been ruthless ever since.
Foden was set to play against the Czech Republic before being pulled out of the team at the last minute after it was confirmed Mason Mount could not play as he had been a close contact of Billy Gilmour and had to self-isolate for 10 days.
The Manchester City midfielder was on a yellow card and another caution would have seen him suspended for the last 16 tie. Southgate did not want to risk that and did not even pick him in his matchday squad. Since then, however, others have seized their chance and Foden has not played a single minute.
Public backing for Kane
Southgate took the highly unusual step – both for him and, indeed, any manager in tournament football – of publicly declaring before England faced the Czech Republic that Kane would be in his starting XI.
In an interview with ITV Sport two days before the tie Southgate, who normally is so careful not to divulge his selections, said: “He is our most important player, there’s no doubt about that”. It was a huge vote of confidence for Kane who had disappointed in England’s first two games – and been substituted in both – and while he did not score he delivered an improved performance.
Even against Germany there were calls for Kane to be brought off but Southgate kept him on and he scored, before following that up with a brace against Ukraine. Now there are even suggestions he could end up with the Golden Boot – some turnaround.
Selecting three players on yellow card
Naturally the big talking point ahead of the quarter-final against Ukraine was whether Southgate should rest any of Harry Maguire, Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips or Phil Foden as all were on a booking and so would be suspended for the semi-final if they received another caution.
To a degree it made sense but Southgate completely demolished this argument pre-match when he said: "I don’t think there is a team in the world who would do that at this point. I have never seen it happen and it is not in our thinking. It would be a bad message for our players and it would be the wrong message for Ukraine.”
Still, it meant the players had to be disciplined and they pulled it off with Maguire even playing the whole game.
Such was the clamour for Jadon Sancho or, indeed, Jack Grealish that there was irritation when Southgate turned instead to Saka for the final group game against the Czech Republic. He was rewarded with a man-of-the-match performance from the outstanding 19-year-old who also managed to recover in time to keep his place and star again against Germany. It was Saka’s positivity – along with that of Raheem Sterling – which set the tone in the last-16 tie. But his inclusion did lead to questions being asked as to why Sancho – who was about to complete his big-money move to Manchester United – had played just six minutes before he was then awarded a start against Ukraine after Saka was ruled out through a minor injury.
Double defensive midfield pivot
Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice have started every game. Southgate stood accused of being far too pragmatic and cautious in selecting two primarily defensive-minded players in the centre of midfield as a double pivot. The ‘handbrake’ was on, he was told, and given their attacking options England could afford to be more expansive.
Mason Mount could have pushed back into one of those positions or Jude Bellingham selected. But Southgate stuck to his plan. Partly because he wanted England to play their way into these finals, given how little preparation time he had had, and also in the knowledge that defensive solidity and clean sheets breeds confidence.
Trippier at left-back
Given the squad includes Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell eyebrows were raised when Southgate selected Trippier at left-back for the opening group game against Croatia.
What kind of message was that to send to the two other players that he was prepared to play someone else out-of-position ahead of them? Trippier did not have his finest game but his selection was vindicated by the win.
Southgate wanted one of his “warriors” on the pitch especially with a relatively-inexperienced Tyrone Mings at left centre-back. Trippier is a good talker and organiser and does well in the one-on-one duels. His combative approach helped set the tone. Interestingly he came on against Ukraine, when Shaw was substituted, with Chilwell left on the bench.