The 5 major things that Gareth Southgate has done to reboot this England team
4. Made the system the star
It’s not just the intangibles that Southgate has reshaped. In the most literal terms, it’s the team itself.
The previous MO for England managers was to crowbar as many star players as possible into their favoured positions – and for proof that this wasn’t limited to the days of The Gerrard-Lampard Conundrum, see Roy Hodgson’s hastily confected 4-1-4-1 setup at Euro 2016. For Southgate, the opposite applies. There is a clear and obvious blueprint in place, and if a discrepancy arises, it is the players who must adapt.
Settling on the 3-5-2 system that most of his players have become familiar with at club level, Southgate has gone about picking a team suitable for his tactics. It’s not just formation, but instincts and approach, too. Southgate prefers a patient, possession-based style, so the midfield is crammed with energy; Pickford gets the goalkeeper spot due to his distribution; and a back three that on paper might look bizarre – Maguire, John Stones and an out-of-position Kyle Walker – makes perfect sense.
Gary Cahill, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, all defenders previously considered of a higher pedigree but inferior ball-players, watch on from the bench or the sofa.
5. Broken the penalty hex
Whatever happens from here, we’ll always have Moscow. A scrappy second-round victory over depleted mid-level opponents may not be much to cheer in any normal England tournament campaign. In fact, it would fit the template rather well; a precursor to the limp exit ahead. Yet a first successful penalty shootout in 22 years, with five failed attempts in the meantime, is no normal occasion.
First and foremost, Southgate has put to bed the plainly idiotic notion that shootouts are a lottery. As he said himself only last week: “It’s not about luck. It’s not about chance. It’s about performing a skill under pressure.”
That ability had eluded England for two decades and come to occupy a strange and prominent place in the national psyche; when The Prospect of Penalties had become subject to a toxic combination of obsession and fatalism, which in turn had effects on the field. England were terrified of penalties because they were so bad at it, and they were bad at it because they were so terrified.
Southgate, who may indeed have some experience of all this, has set about addressing the problem in a deeply sensible way. It involves drawing up a full list of takers (as opposed to the hands-up-if-you-want-one system that did for him), scrutinising the opposition, replicating the situation as close as possible and practising the hell out of it.
His talk of “owning the process” may have had more than a whiff of management speak about it, but the results are not to be argued with. It wasn’t just that England went through against Colombia, it was that they overcame a setback to do so, going uncowed by the ominous fact that they were the first team to miss, and showing the requisite steel thereafter. Process owned.