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29th Mar 2021

Pragmatic football wins tournaments, Southgate is right to err on the side of caution

Reuben Pinder explains why Gareth Southgate is wise to err on the side of caution, rather than cram as many attacking players into his team as possible

Reuben Pinder

International football is boring because sometimes, boring means winning

Every single time England’s starting XI is announced, it is met with a wave of fury, generally from fans who are gutted not to see their favourite player starting. But on Sunday it was more pointed. Fans were particularly annoyed with the selection of a seemingly negative midfield balance. But is a more pragmatic approach such a bad idea? If France’s victory three years ago taught us anything, it’s that sometimes a less exciting line-up makes for more successful football.

When France won the World Cup in 2018, Olivier Giroud famously did not have one shot on target throughout the entire tournament. He played a functional role, facilitating two more mobile and more clinical forwards in Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé, and it worked wonders, leading them to their second ever World Cup victory. But France didn’t start the tournament like that.

In their first group game against Australia, Didier Deschamps set his team up in a more expansive 4-3-3 system, with a fluid attack of Griezmann, Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé, with Griezmann nominally playing as a false 9. Although they won the game, an unconvincing, slightly disjointed performance against poor opposition convinced Deschamps to sacrifice a bit of flair for a more pragmatic approach, and he never looked back.

Dembélé and Corentin Tolliso were dropped, with Blaise Matuidi coming in to play on the left of a midfield 4 and Giroud becoming the focal point in attack, giving Griezmann a partner to work with. It was less exciting on paper, as more talented and exciting players made way for reliability, but it worked, and France looked a much more secure team from that moment on, as they went on to life the trophy.

‘And what’s this got to do with England?’ you ask. Well, the discourse around the England squad and Gareth Southgate’s countless selection dilemmas is currently centred around a supposedly negative and defensive team selection.

The news that both Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips would be starting in midfield against Albania rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. ‘Two DMs’ began to trend on Twitter. Southgate was labelled an idiot. England won 2-0.

Most of this fume is borne from a desire to see England’s new generation of wonderfully talented attacking midfielders put to best use, and not wasted in favour of boring, defensive football. But this is the wrong way to look at things. What matters more than who plays, is how the team play, and having the right balance on the field to facilitate that approach.

As tempting as it is to think, ‘fuck it, play Henderson as a lone DM, and cram Foden, Grealish, Mount, Sterling and Kane into a fluid front five’, you can understand why a manager might not opt for such a gung-ho line-up. Especially in international football, when time on the training field is scarce and a comfortable system is more important than an attacking one.

There is also no reason why a midfield duo of Rice and Phillips (soon to be Henderson upon his return to fitness) has to be overly defensive, either. Rice is considered an anchorman but has shown in recent games for West Ham he is more than capable of bursting through the lines of midfield to carry the team up the pitch, while Phillips is more of a line-breaking passer, and Henderson a hybrid of those two styles.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a defensively minded double pivot when central defence is probably your weakest area in the team. Harry Maguire and John Stones will appreciate the protection.

The stats from the Albania game also show that despite playing two naturally defensive midfielders, England dominated possession (71 per cent), did not allow Albania a shot on target (though they had two good chances) and emerged comfortable 2-0 victors.

When Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho return to fitness, Southgate will have a new selection headache, with only four available spots in his XI for attackers, two of which have been nailed down by Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. This means inevitably, some good players will have to sit on the bench, and some fans will be disappointed.

But Southgate is right to err on the side of caution, and select players he trusts to perform, especially given England’s history of shoehorning attacking midfielders into the side rather than opting for balance.

There is a reason the ‘Golden Generation’ didn’t win anything. Let’s not let that happen again.