It has been well documented that Gareth Southgate has been reluctant to play in an expansive manner with the impressive crop of attacking players he has at his disposal, but was he right to adopt a more defensive approach?
Ultimately, yes – up to a point.
We say ‘defensive approach’ but for the most part of Euro 2020 England operated in a 4-2-3-1 system with four forwards supported by over-lapping full-backs.
That set-up was more than good enough to create chances against nearly all teams England came up against, with the Three Lions getting enough bodies in advanced areas to cause problems.
Raheem Sterling – Mason Mount – Bukayo Saka/Phil Foden/Jadon Sancho supporting Harry Kane was more than threatening enough as a forward line, and with the safety net of a Declan Rice – Kalvin Phillips pivot, there was good balance to the side.
The clamour for Jack Grealish, Phil Foden et al to all be in the starting XI was a strange one given how in control the England side looked, but the main issues and concerns came after the group stage.
Operating in a back four seemed to suit every England player to the ground.
The Three Lions had defensive solidity in abundance, while also having various outlets up the pitch if they did get pinned back – something they didn’t have when playing with a back five against Germany and in the final against Italy.
Gareth Southgate opted to match Germany’s formation and go with a back five, but in doing so he kept the same double pivot in midfield – the more defensive minded pair of Rice and Phillips.
All of a sudden, England had one less out-and-out attacking player on the pitch, playing with seven defence-first thinkers.
While the belief is that this would help to create defensive solidity, it didn’t work out that way.
The only two games in which England played with a back five were against Germany in the round of 16 and against Italy in the final – admittedly the two best teams they faced – but those games were their worst defensive displays according to expected goals.
England didn’t concede a single ‘big chance’ (0.35 xG+) at Euro 2020 when playing in a back four, helped by the fact they could progress the ball up the pitch easier and in various ways.
Against Germany, matching them up in a defensive system worked as neither side could overrun the other without a change.
But, importantly, in that match Southgate made attacking changes, bringing on Jack Grealish with 20 minutes left in an attempt to win the game.
The back five was a bad idea in the final as England were inviting pressure as soon as they scored the early goal, and the longer the game went on, the deeper the England defence got.
This is where Gareth Southgate falls somewhat short of an elite manager.
In such situations, being proactive rather than reactive is the best solution. Solve a problem before it occurs rather than let it happen and then attempt to fix it.
Roberto Mancini switched system slightly to operate with a false-nine, meaning England’s back three were being moved around a lot without respite as the team couldn’t get up the pitch as they didn’t have enough forward players on the field.
England could and should have reacted with changes of their own - after all, they did have some top-level ball carriers on the bench they could call upon.
Jack Grealish should have been introduced on the hour mark - with Kieran Trippier the player to make way. England were getting pushed further and further back towards their own goal, and the midfield two were getting overrun by Italy’s three plus the false-nine.
England needed an outlet, someone to get the team up the pitch and break up the growing momentum of Italy by being direct and winning fouls. Grealish, Sancho, Marcus Rashford and, if he was fit, Foden all do this exceptionally well.
Southgate didn’t use them a lot throughout the tournament, but had used them wisely up to the final, as a good balance had been struck. He needed to bring one or two of them on in the final.
Despite England being second best, his 'do not lose' philosophy was working similar to the Germany game, with the score level heading into the 70th minute.
The difference in the two games was the approach taken in the final 20 minutes. Against the Germans he went to win the game, making attacking substitutions, but against Italy he went the other way, not being brave enough to take the risk.
Instead, Italy equalised and then Southgate made changes, keeping the same system but bringing on Jordan Henderson in midfield and Bukayo Saka in defence.
Saka is a good player, but he doesn’t scare opposition defences as the other three forwards mentioned above.
He was brought on with defence in mind. Having played at wing-back at times throughout the 20/21 campaign, he provides defensive cover that the others perhaps don’t.
Southgate doesn’t trust the likes of Grealish, Rashford or Sancho to do the defensive work required.
But, sometimes, the best form of defence is attack, and that is exactly what the Three Lions needed to do to stem the tide of Italy at the start of the second half.
Southgate now has a real issue, as being tough to beat is all well and good, but when you have a generation of attacking players of the quality that England do, attack has to be the first port of call.
Can he adapt his approach ahead of the Qatar World Cup? Will he find a system that provides the balance required? Time will tell.
What we have learnt from the Euros though is that England have a great crop of players with a bright future. However, a back five shouldn’t be included in those long-term plans.