England face an even greater test of their Total Southgate philosophy | Euro 2020

V ive “Le Jeu Prudent” . Who knows, with a little time L’Équipe’s description of the tone and texture of England’s victory against German...

Vive “Le Jeu Prudent”. Who knows, with a little time L’Équipe’s description of the tone and texture of England’s victory against Germany might just catch on.

Sometimes those outside the bubble can offer the clearest view. The L’Équipe write-up was glowing in its tactical notes – with Luke Shaw’s mastery of the left flank a particular chef’s kiss – and scathing of Germany’s attempts to play too quickly in attack. Handbrakes, correctly applied, do serve a vital purpose.

Le Jeu Prudent is a good phrase in other ways, with a sense not just of caution but of a guiding wisdom that, like it or not, is present in every turn this team takes.

Zoom out a little and the most interesting thing about Southgate’s England is the way they are at all times Southgate’s England. Not just in the first XI, but in decisions stretching back through selection, tactics and mood music around the players, to Southgate’s own involvement though the age groups.

With this responsibility comes a greater jeopardy. The defeat of Germany seemed, at the time, to validate so many decisions, hard choices, turns taken along the way. But as England prepare to face Ukraine in Rome on Saturday night it has become clear that victory also offered a longer distance to fall, a more crushing point at which to exit this tournament, and an even greater systems-test of the Total Southgate philosophy.

Some will expect England to romp through now against a team ranked 24th in the world, a team that drew at home with Bahrain in May and lost 7-1 to France last year. There will be the usual calls to rev up through the gears, to unleash inside-forward hell, to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of Gareth.

This, though, would be counterintuitive. One legacy of the Germany result is that Southgate has earned the right to fail or succeed his own way. Le Jeu Prudent got us here. It can get us out of here too.

One common misunderstanding of Southgate’s methods is to confuse his tactical conservatism with a lack of bravery. It takes genuine courage to stick to a plan, to resist not just the ambient pressure, but your own inevitable doubts. It is a part of Southgate’s quiet revolution – a roundhead, ascetic, English kind of revolution – that he refuses to divert from that chosen course.

Another Southgate myth is the idea he is, in his stubbornness, some kind of company man, an embodiment of a wider FA diktat. In reality it is hard to recall a time when one England manager has had such a profoundly personal effect on every aspect of the national team.

Total Southgate applies to tactics, tone, and both the selection and the development of players. There was a fascinating interview with Aidy Boothroyd on Sky Sports this week. In it Boothroyd spoke about his pride, his – if he says so himself – success in progressing players from England’s under-21s to the senior team (which is, not to make a thing of it, doing rather well right now).

Football managers are always selling something, and Boothroyd would be nuts not to talk up his own role. But this is such obvious eyewash, such a revision of Southgate’s total primacy in building this team, that it deserves to be scrutinised.

Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho board England’s plane to Rome.
Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho board England’s plane to Rome. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/The FA/Getty Images

In reality Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish are the only two of the 12 England outfield players against Germany to have had any involvement at all with Boothroyd’s under-21s. Saka played one game. The 2019 European championships is best remembered for Boothroyd dropping Phil Foden, weirdly, for a calamitous 4-2 defeat to Romania. Boothroyd was also asked about Grealish on Sky, but didn’t say much. Understandably so as he didn’t play him, leaving Grealish on the bench for the entire 2017 Under‑21 Euros, and picking Will Hughes and Lewis Baker instead.

The other current England starters were either not picked at under-21 level, or played under Stuart Pearce and Brian Eastick in a less pathway-fixated regime. The point here is not to degrade the Boothroyd Legacy, but to illustrate that this is in large part a Southgate-built crew.

Some – Harry Kane for example – played for the under-21s in his own era there. Others – Harry Maguire, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice (who definitely didn’t have anything to do with Boothroyd) – have found Southgate’s England a hugely energising influence on their status as club footballers.

As for the talk of attacking talent and Southgate’s own fitness to manage it, Southgate is responsible for promoting many of those players in the first place. How many previous England managers would have picked a 17-year-old playing in the Bundesliga (answer: none)? Or given such sustained early opportunities to Jadon Sancho and Saka. The loyalty of these players, their unity behind the Jeu Prudent, is not simply a stroke of luck.

And so on to Ukraine. England have played three previous European quarter-finals at the tournament proper. Only one, against Spain in 1996, has ended in victory, and that was on penalties after a painful 0-0. It is this record in knockout stages, as much as The Southgate Way, that suggests England should play this game like the high-stakes one-off it is; as opposed to a chance to rotate or even, God help us, find new and exciting attacking rhythms.

One aspect of England’s style that has gone a little under the radar is the ability to break a game down into phases. To date England have parcelled their tournament games into sections. Southgate has conditioned his team to rest, to allow the throttle to drop, knowing it can be pressed later. So England can play aggressively for 20 minutes against Croatia then take a breath, or draw the sting from Germany, refuse to lose in the opening hour, then surge in the final 25 minutes.

Staving off fatigue, controlling an opponent’s strengths, reducing 90 shapeless minutes to a series of managed phases: this has felt like good tournament sense against the stronger teams. How wWill it work against opponents who are expected to concede more possession, and who have a shrewd coach of their own in Andriy Shevchenko?

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There is a suggestion England will revert to a back four in Rome, allowing Mason Mount (or Grealish, or Foden) to return as an extra progressive player. On the other hand the basic tenets of Southgate-ism dictate that an opponent’s strengths must first be processed.

Ukraine, like Germany, play on the flanks. Against Sweden they used a 3-5-2 that suits their attacking patterns. All of Ukraine’s goals at these Euros have come either from a cross, a crossfield pass, or a combination in wide areas. It is possible Southgate will again “match” his opponents, play full-backs as wing-backs and trust that his attack will find a moment to win the game. It could, and probably will, be tight.

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Newsrust - US Top News: England face an even greater test of their Total Southgate philosophy | Euro 2020
England face an even greater test of their Total Southgate philosophy | Euro 2020
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