There is a saying, much used by the former Real Madrid and Real Sociedad coach John Toshack during his time in Spain, which Gareth Southgate should relate to.
“If I pull the blanket over my head my feet get cold,” the Welshman said. “And if I push it over my feet my head gets cold.” It sums up the quandary for the England manager right now.
The brilliant, 12-minute comeback against Germany at Wembley on Monday showed that when England are forced to play to their strengths and attack they are a far more exciting, and better, side. When they are pre-occupied by attempting to mask their weaknesses in defence, they are lessened.
Southgate – like Toshack – will argue that the deficiencies in defence and central midfield mean he has to go a different way. But if he sets up with three-at-the-back – or effectively five-at-the-back – as he did against Germany, it does not get the best out of the attacking players.
It is striking that Southgate has come out of the past two tournaments, having taken England to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018 and being just a couple of penalty kicks away from winning the European Championships last year, planning to ditch his back-three.
Both times, however, he has reverted to it as a default position and it seems likely that it will be the approach at Qatar although, as with the Euros, it may be a question of changing up formations depending on the opponent.
Southgate is understandably a devotee of the theory that tournament-winning football is based on defence. England kept five cleans sheets on their way to the final of Euro 2020; France are the world champions but were hardly free-flowing in Russia when coach Didier Deschamps was accused of stifling their attacking options; Italy are the European champions but coach Roberto Mancini also favours three central defenders.
Southgate is no fool. There are legitimate criticisms of his tactics and substitutions and in-game changes – so hopefully he will get some credit for the impact he made in rescuing the game against Germany – but he is also a better manager than he is given credit for.
The core problem for him is that he does not have a centre-half pairing that he feels he can rely upon. If Harry Maguire’s form had not collapsed to such a degree that he looks like he will be a liability if he starts at the World Cup then maybe Southgate should have persisted with him alongside John Stones in a back four.
Now, though, the combinations are unconvincing. Eric Dier plays in a back three at Tottenham Hotspur and has made a solid return to England but he can look exposed in a two in the heart of defence, while Southgate’s failure to use Fikayo Tomori in either game against Italy or Germany is irrational. It is a mistake by the manager - as may be his determination to keep faith with Maguire.
Tomori is quick and mobile and although he is right-footed he can play on the left. But the 24-year-old has not been given the game time for England so clearly Southgate is not sure about him, Marc Guehi, Ben White or any of the other possibilities.
England’s three group games are against Iran – who Southgate went to watch play Senegal in Vienna on Tuesday - Wales and the United States, fixtures in which they will be expected to dominate possession. So do they need to play with five defenders? Does, in fact, facing those nations give them a chance to perfect a 4-3-3 with more difficult games to come even if it means making a tactical shift at the start of a tournament and with no preparation time? Or – and this is hugely relevant – is that also a dangerous assumption for England and a trap they have fallen into the past?
There was a sense after the last World Cup that the 3-5-2 – changed into a 3-4-3 after the tournament – was a formation that would only take England so far especially against the stronger teams who would keep the ball and eventually out-pass them as Croatia did in the semi-final in Russia.
Again, though, Toshack’s blanket comes into it. Using a 4-3-3 is strengthened if there is a midfield pivot who can control possession and dictate the tempo of a game and it has been well-rehearsed England do not have a Luka Modric or a Joshua Kimmich as Southgate has candidly admitted. It is a failure of the Premier League academy system.
But there is hope. England’s outstanding performer against Germany was Jude Bellingham and his partnership with Declan Rice is encouraging. Bellingham is a wonderful talent but pinning England’s hopes of the 19-year-old is unfair although Southgate can create a structure in which he can thrive. Bellingham is also more used to playing 4-3-3 as he does for his club, Borussia Dortmund.
Interestingly England’s best results – beating Germany at the Euros aside – since the last World Cup have come with a back four: against Croatia and Spain in late 2018 and against Denmark, Ukraine and Croatia also at the Euros. The three defeats in the Nations League have been with a back three.
The fundamental problem with Southgate’s intended approach is the balance is weighted to having too many defenders on the pitch and this just does not play to England’s strengths. But will he change now?
12 minutes that turned England's fortunes
By Mike McGrath
Between the 71st minute and the 83rd, England had possession of the ball for 3 minutes 38 seconds which may not sound much but is a huge portion considering the amount of time the ball is in play.
Germany had Joshua Kimmich receiving treatment during that period and Jamal Musiala getting cramp and getting subbed off. England won the ball and kept it. Timo Werner tried to break forward but the intense pressing of Southgate’s players meant they got nowhere near the danger area.
Declan Rice had control of the central area during this time, keeping England’s rhythm with passing to his wing-backs and sometimes forwards. He also allowed Jude Bellingham freedom to push forward and join attacks.
Players in the box
The fightback started when Luke Shaw pulled a goal back when he finished off a move and was one of five players in the penalty area. Of those, Shaw, Harry Kane, Mason Mount and Bellingham were around the six-yard area.
Getting numbers forward and swamping opposition will be the key to continuing a scoring streak after so long without a goal from open play. Southgate is wedded to his 3-4-3 formation so the onus will be on the full-backs to get forward like Shaw did, arriving late to finish off moves.
For Shaw’s goal, Bellingham starts the move and he ends up in the six-yard area moments later. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder showed attacking intent even before the goal, trying his luck from long-range.
The teenager shows great maturity with his runs, adding genuine threat as he supports his strikers. And his passing shows that he makes the right decisions on the ball. He has formed a good understanding with Rice and they are looking likely to start in England’s World Cup opener against Iran.
Southgate got his substitutions right and in Bukayo Saka he has a player who is fearless. The Arsenal forward got the ball and just ran at the Germany backline, contrasted to Phil Foden who started the game and sometimes appeared hesitant. Saka does not just get his head down, he brings others in the game as well, just as he did for Mount’s equaliser with a driving run and a lay-off. It was also his pass that led to Bellingham winning a penalty.
Mount has plenty of energy, which has made him a key player for Southgate but he has been on the bench for the two games of this international break. His running is one of the reasons Southgate likes him and his energy will be needed against the top teams in Qatar.
Mount slipped as he scored the equaliser but got a good enough connection to find the top corner. Other players may have taken an extra touch before shooting but Mount was rewarded for taking the chance early. Similarly, Shaw calmly chested the ball before his finish, which was in a similar area to where he scored against Italy in the Euro 2020 final.