Gareth Southgate has overseen a period of success in England, unmatched since 1966. And yet he is described as a manager who is “very defensive”, a coach who is “very smart”, someone who “doesn’t maximize the attacking talent” he has.
To a large extent, much of that criticism is correct, but not fair.
First, let’s take a look at Southgate’s squad for this World Cup. England have included nine defenders in their squad of 26. Most other countries in Qatar have named 10 defenders, as Southgate has done in previous tournaments.
Southgate has said that being the England manager is not “fantasy football” and that while it is unlikely that he has a wealth of talent to choose from, they may not all be in the starting XI.
That is absolutely correct. It is impossible to have Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, James Maddison and Mason Mount, and give them all the game time they crave.
These are seven of the best attacking players in the Premier League. And it doesn’t even consider the strikers – one of them won the golden boot at the last World Cup.
But above and beyond the numbers, what about Southgate’s philosophy? I would say it is pragmatic. Protection – but not bad.
Why defense is so important to Southgate in competitions
When Southgate took over as England manager, he and his assistant Steve Holland began to investigate why a generation of England teams had been so successful in the big game.
He couldn’t understand why the team always seemed to flounder through the qualifiers, only to stumble into the finals.
When he was manager of the U21s in 2014 Southgate was the editor-in-chief of the “England DNA” program, together with Dan Ashworth – he is the FA’s head of senior development.
Central to this plan was creating a pathway for young talent to the senior team and preparing for success.
But he also learned what made Italy and Germany, for example, against England, seen as success stories in major finals, in any case to enter the tournament.
One of the conclusions was that the best teams in the league were also the worst.
In the beginning, in a knock-out game, if you don’t win, you can’t lose.
And so Southgate confirmed that his England squad would be built on a solid defensive foundation.
In the last World Cup in Russia, England scored four goals in their first five games, before losing in the semi-final to Croatia. They had kept only one blank sheet of paper.
In the post-match analysis, Southgate and Holland agreed that England needed to be stronger.
At the Euros in the summer of 2021, England did not concede a single goal until the semi-final against Denmark. It’s five games and five clean sheets. And England came close to conceding a few goals to miss out on their biggest trophy in 55 years.
Proof, Southgate felt, that his approach was correct.
So it is unreasonable to think that he will suddenly change his mind now, when he is sure that his research and methods are well proven.
The England boss has been criticized for including two defensive players in his starting XI, even against some of the ‘non-elite’ sides of world football. They could do so again against Iran in the Group B opener, as Declan Rice is a shoo-in and Kalvin Phillips needs game time after recovering from shoulder surgery.
And we should expect that trend to continue in Qatar as Southgate knows that England’s defense is the team’s Achilles heel and he will try to protect everything.
England are more vulnerable defensively in this tournament than ever before under Southgate. Reece James and Ben Chilwell are missing through injury, Kyle Walker is in the squad but recovering from groin surgery, and Harry Maguire is close to being named Manchester United’s first choice.
And so it is inevitable – and understandable – that Southgate will need protection in front of his defence.
What’s behind Southgate’s smart decisions in the back three/back-four…
Likewise, Southgate has been criticized for favoring a back three in a 3-5-2 formation. The argument goes: ‘Why do you need three central defenders against teams who will be deep against England, as we expect Iran?’
It is a very good idea, which many experts have said.
Southgate’s answer, privately, is that the formation frees up England’s wings to push and provides more attacking options.
Whatever the England team chooses, they will play with five players and defend with five players. It’s no different if it’s a flat back four, or a back three.
This requires an explanation, so here it goes…
With a back four, England is like most club teams – the defenders are instructed to link up with each other, and if one pushes forward to support the attack, the other is expected to sit back and cover any counter-breaks. .
With three backs, England’s full backs are all given permission to push forward at the same time as there is enough protection for them if a threat is made.
So with every formation there are (should be) three defenders and two defensive players to stop the opposition attacks. And, as a result, there are five attacking players who are expected to go for goals.
The main difference between the two designs is the way they attack. If Southgate’s experts believe that the opposition is in danger, he can choose three players at the back. Having two free attacking wings in England’s line – and two wings – makes sense, trying to expose that weakness.
If England’s coaches believe that the full backs are strong, and that a smaller attack can create more chances, then a back four can work well, with an extra England player in the middle.
Similarly, if the analysis shows that the opponent has his own strong attacking tactics, having two English wings who push and leave a lot of space at the back, is unwise.
To summarize – it’s easy to say that Southgate is too clever, although it’s fair to say that Southgate is defensive.
And, after reaching the final of the Euros 16 months ago, don’t expect him to change his style in Qatar.
Drawing for the World Cup 2022
- Group A: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands
- Group B: England, Iran, USA, Wales
- Group C: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland
- Group D: France, Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
- Group E: Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan
- Group F: Belgium, Ghana, Morocco, Croatia
- Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
- Group H: Portugal, Canada, Uruguay, South Korea