Alex Keble: Gareth Southgate’s steady evolution keeps England among favourites for Euro 2020

Alex Keble looks at England's 4-0 win over Bulgaria
Alex Keble looks at England's 4-0 win over Bulgaria

What caught the eye at a sleepy autumnal Wembley - the crowd quietly nattering away to give a 4-0 victory the feel of a pleasant, if a tad dull, family picnic - was England’s snug sense of identity on home soil.

Gareth Southgate’s side look completely at ease despite a pretty drastic change of tactical direction since the World Cup, a testament to his desire for constant evolution and re-adaptation. It is an approach that keeps England fresh, modern, and on the path to Euro 2020 success.

England matches might lack the febrile urgency of club football but while it’s easy to criticise the Wembley atmosphere it’s worth remembering how agitated, how claustrophobic, this place used to be. Southgate’s England are good fun - even if it’s safe, cuddly entertainment rather than cutting-edge art. That’s as good as it really gets in a European Championship qualifier against vastly inferior opponents, who after some early initial resistance collapsed to a defeat that will be most fondly remembered for Harry Kane's hat-trick.

And so all we can look for from Saturday’s performance are signs that England can come to life in those rare big games; the late knock-out matches that come, at best, twice every two-year cycle. There was enough in the measured tactical approach, and some individual energetic performances, to be hopeful about England’s progress.

Harry Kane scores his penalty against Bulgaria
Harry Kane scores his penalty against Bulgaria

Southgate’s 4-3-3, a mainstay since September last year, roughly emulates the systems used by Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola in the Premier League. With narrow inside forwards and a hard-working central midfield England want to counter-press like Liverpool and play vertical football through dual number eights like Man City.

It makes perfect sense, not least because it means most of England’s best players are deployed in exactly the same roles as at club level, seamlessly carrying their form across. Against Bulgaria, Ross Barkley, Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford were not just in their usual positions but following precisely the same tactical direction.

Speed is a top priority in this Klopp-esque system, and if the Liverpool idea is to properly take off England will need to gegenpress hard. The vast majority of their best chances on Saturday came from winning the ball and countering quickly, most notably for each of the first three goals; when invited to break Bulgaria down everything looked flat - the Rice/Henderson/Barkley triumvirate as clunky as expected – but when nicking the ball and breaking forward England were transformed. They need to do this much more regularly, pressing more boldly for the full 90 minutes.

When Bulgaria did sit back it was striking to see Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford making intelligent runs in behind, only for that hesitant midfield to ignore them. The gulf in quality between England’s front three and midfield trio is worrying, a situation Mason Mount and James Maddison can, perhaps, help fix.

Raheem Sterling celebrates his goal against Bulgaria
Raheem Sterling celebrates his goal against Bulgaria

Not that either of these players can close the gap to Sterling; in a league of his own for England these days. He looks a foot taller than this time last year and a bona-fide superstar, possessing an effortless grace that gives him the sort of aura that emanates only from the game’s very best players. Sterling is self-evidently the new fulcrum, the man whose style of play developed under Guardiola embodies the piercing counter-press football Southgate is attempting to infuse in his England team.

Elsewhere, aside from needing to perfect the press and de-clump the midfield, England look notably weak in the full-back positions. Danny Rose is a shadow of his former self, misfiring from decent attacking positions in a way Ben Chilwell surely would not, while Kieran Trippier doesn’t appear to have absorbed Diego Simeone’s tactical ideas just yet. Trent Alexander-Arnold should be in this side, especially given his importance to the Klopp system Southgate now draws from.

But to find faults in the performance is to nit-pick; Bulgaria didn’t put up enough of a fight for England to truly shine - or to have any major vulnerabilities exposed. This was a calmly controlled display from a calmly controlled manager, who spoke with typically impressive authority after the match, praising his side’s professional performance. There can be no complaints here, the occasional flash of gegenpressing quality (for the first and third goals in particular) pleasing enough for a fixture as one-sided as this one.

What it all means for England is gradual movement towards a truly modern tactical approach that is perfectly suited to their best players, even if, in the short term, it means apathetic cheering and Mexican waves. England are on track.


Follow Sporting Life on social media - find us on Facebook here or tweet @SportingLifeFC

Related football links

Like what you've read?
Help your friends Know It All by sharing this article to your social media.

Most Read Football

1

Sporting Life Accumulator

The latest Sporting Life Accumulator involves four teams across the three divisions enhanced to 22/1 by EFL title sponsors Sky Bet.

Sporting Life's Premier League preview package2

Saturday's Premier League tips

Mark your card for Saturday's Premier League games with our best bets and score predictions, including those involving Spurs and Man City.

Check out Sporting Life's preview of Southampton v Bournemouth in the Premier League3

Friday night tips: Boufal to bag

Friday's Premier League game comes from St Mary's, where George Pitts expects an overdue goalscorer for hosts Southampton against Bournemouth.

The latest football gossip and transfer rumours4

Paper Talk: Mane mega deal

Ahead of the weekend action, Friday's Paper Talk covers all the day's football gossip, including a new deal for Sadio Mane at Liverpool.

Listen to Sporting Life's Weekend Best Bets Podcast for free tips across a range of sports5

Podcast: Weekend Best Bets

Listen for free to the latest Sporting Life Weekend Best Bets podcast as the team share their tips across racing, football, rugby union and Formula One.

Most Read Football

1

Sporting Life Accumulator

The latest Sporting Life Accumulator involves four teams across the three divisions enhanced to 22/1 by EFL title sponsors Sky Bet.

Sporting Life's Premier League preview package2

Saturday's Premier League tips

Mark your card for Saturday's Premier League games with our best bets and score predictions, including those involving Spurs and Man City.

Check out Sporting Life's preview of Southampton v Bournemouth in the Premier League3

Friday night tips: Boufal to bag

Friday's Premier League game comes from St Mary's, where George Pitts expects an overdue goalscorer for hosts Southampton against Bournemouth.

The latest football gossip and transfer rumours4

Paper Talk: Mane mega deal

Ahead of the weekend action, Friday's Paper Talk covers all the day's football gossip, including a new deal for Sadio Mane at Liverpool.

Listen to Sporting Life's Weekend Best Bets Podcast for free tips across a range of sports5

Podcast: Weekend Best Bets

Listen for free to the latest Sporting Life Weekend Best Bets podcast as the team share their tips across racing, football, rugby union and Formula One.

Football Tips

Check out Sporting Life's preview of Southampton v Bournemouth in the Premier League

Friday night tips: Boufal to bag

Friday's Premier League game comes from St Mary's, where George Pitts expects an overdue goalscorer for hosts Southampton against Bournemouth.

Check out the latest Sporting Life Price Boost

Price Boost: Friday double

Sky Bet have enhanced the odds on a double on Friday's Premier League football, exclusively for Sporting Life readers.

Sporting Life Accumulator

The latest Sporting Life Accumulator involves four teams across the three divisions enhanced to 22/1 by EFL title sponsors Sky Bet.