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Opinion

Is England’s success because of Southgate or in spite of him?

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Roar Rookie
9th July, 2021
10

Before we get into this, I know a lot of people are going to have strong opinions about this and will react by wanting to hang a ‘disgruntled Aston Villa fan having a pop’ tag on here.

Before you do, please hear me out and then decide whether you still hold that view.

Gareth Southgate has done an excellent job since he took over. The clean slate, zero egos, selection-on-merit policy rather than on name or age, and team-first culture and ethos have been first class since the moment he walked in the door.

England were excellent at the World Cup (albeit it more positive and attacking than they are now) and now England are into a major final for the first time in my lifetime. Pundits and experts are waxing lyrical about him, lauding him about doing it his way and getting England there.

But are they going a little bit too far? His way, with the crop of players England have available, has at times made it far more knife-edge than it could and should have been with the path England had in front of them to the final. The players have been good enough to paper over his mistakes.

Gareth Southgate

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Let’s start with the most recent game first.

The Jack Grealish decision versus Denmark
The decision that everyone is talking about is Southgate’s choice to take Jack Grealish off in extra time against Denmark. Experts have described it as ruthless and excellent game management.

It was game management, but it wasn’t excellent.

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You have two players to choose from. One player is an exceptional out ball and pressure reliever and causer because he is virtually impossible to get the ball off, it takes three opponents to tackle him, and invariably he wins a free kick in such situations. He keeps opposing teams honest and fearful, which makes them cautious and less willing to bomb forwards.

The other player invariably doesn’t do any of that. He frequently loses possession when his teammates aren’t close or moving into space so he can find them with a pass, which doesn’t happen a lot when your team is sitting in defending, and is a risk in that sense because opponents can regain possession of the ball.

Which one, as a logical, sensible, objective manager, do you want to keep on the pitch? The former, every day of the week, because he offers you so, so much more. But he took the former one off. For reasons only he knows, and none of them hold any water.

It had a massive effect on the game. England had Denmark on the rack and had done for half an hour, roughly since the time Jack Grealish came on, an uncanny correlation. They hardly got out of their own half and swarmed Grealish as most teams do.

England were in total control. By removing Grealish, Southgate not only removed all of the above attributes from his team but also put a placard up to Denmark, inviting them on. Denmark showed more in the first two minutes of the second half of extra time than they had in over half an hour before that, and they kept going. England, instead of being in total control, were on the back foot defending for their lives.

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Not only should the decision not have been made at that moment in the game, because it gave Denmark’s manager a chance to rally his troops from the off of the second period, rather than have a tougher time setting up during play from the touchline, and England were in control. He should have waited until he felt England weren’t in control. He made a very poor decision in which player he removed. It could so easily have cost England victory.

A victory that only looked likely once Mason Mount came off, which brings me to the next decision.

Harry Kane celebrates after scoring a goal.

(Photo by Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The decision to play Mason Mount
Only when Mason Mount came off against Denmark did I think England could win the game. Mount is a very good player, no question, but his end product in the final third is severely lacking in comparison with England’s best attackers.

Not only does he frequently fluff his touch in tight spaces and goal-scoring positions (as he again did several times against Denmark) and waste chances, he virtually never scores or assists, including against the undermanned Ukraine. He did take the corner for one of the goals but that was his lot. The other attackers made the play without and around him for the rest.

If you’re going to play a 4-2-3-1 system, the three all need to be prolific goal creators and scorers. He simply isn’t. The stats say it and watching him says it.

He is not good enough in that position to merit a berth. He should never be given a role more advanced than centre midfield for England (and for his club). Picking him in that role wastes a spot that should be reserved for a more creative player that torments opponents and prolifically scores and creates goals.

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I wouldn’t play him at all. England have enough good defensive midfielders and a solid enough defensive set-up not to need another all-round midfielder in there. Yes, you know who I’d pick there! I’ll get to why.

Picking Mount in the attacking three has been a poor decision that has been made repetitively and has affected other games as well.

The earlier path
England won the group but it was far from convincing. They eked a win over a Croatia side that weren’t really at the races, they were outplayed by Scotland in a negative-tactics quagmire, and they were better against the Czechs until Grealish – England’s best player in that game – was mystifyingly taken off early in the second half.

It was not that mystifying if you listen to Southgate’s former teammate Lee Hendrie, who labelled the decision embarrassing.

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Bringing Marcus Rashford on to play centre forward against Croatia, rather than Dominic Calvert-Lewin, when Rashford doesn’t play as a centre forward and is clearly not comfortable or effective in that role was also mystifying.

If he didn’t want to play Calvert-Lewin, he should have put another striker on. But of course, he didn’t take any other strikers to the tournament.

Harry Kane celebrates with Jordan Henderson.

(Photo by Chris Ricco – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

The only game where Southgate has actually got everything right is the match Germany. The set-up was spot on and the decision to let the game settle and keep the Germans out before using Grealish was cautious but it worked.

When Grealish came on, he took the game by the scruff of the neck and made all the difference. There is a school of thought that, had he started, England would have won by a lot more.

That’s one out of six. I know that saying he got it wrong against Ukraine in a 4-0 victory is highly debatable but Mount should not have played.

England won’t beat Italy without Grealish
England need Grealish to beat Italy. And he should play in the centre of the attacking three, not on the left. He has done most of his best work in the centre for England and can control the game from that position.

He has done that in this tournament when he’s been in the middle. When he is on the left, hugging the touchline, opposing teams swarm him in twos and threes and often block him from centring the ball so he has to play it back.

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Then if England centre it, the swarm dissipates and slides across, and re-forms if it goes back to Grealish. Added to that, if you watch England’s other attackers, they often stand still when Grealish has the ball on the left, expecting him to do it all on his own.

Playing him in the middle not only enables him to control the game but also makes it far harder for opponents to shut him down.

If they swarm him, they leave space on the flanks and he can flick it out to either side. It also makes it easier for England’s other attackers to make runs for him.

Well done Southgate and England – awesome ride
Gareth Southgate has done an excellent job and he’s taken England to their first major final in my lifetime. Thanks Gareth!

All I’m saying is that he hasn’t been perfect or made all the right decisions by any stretch. England have been very good and England can win this, but he’s going to need to get it all right for the final.

Leave out Mount! Pick Grealish!

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