Balance matters more than romance in England’s quest for World Cup glory
Within nine months of his first match as England manager in 1963, Alf Ramsey had seen his side put eight past both Switzerland and Northern Ireland (Bobby Charlton scored three in the first of those games, Jimmy Greaves four in the second, if anyone is minded to complain about Harry Kane and stat-padding). Amid general excitement, Ramsey was unmoved: the capacity to hammer minnows (as Switzerland and Northern Ireland then were), he cautioned, had very little to do with the business of winning tournaments.
For a country such as England, qualifying is a curious business. Get through easily and it is treated with a weary sigh, as though getting to the finals was always assured and the draw was kind. Struggle and the sense is, understandably, that if you can’t beat that lot, what hope do you have against the big sides? England made this group look straightforward, and the experience of Portugal and Italy suggests that achievement should not be underestimated. Poland, Hungary and an improving Albania were all potentially awkward opponents.
The way the fixtures fell, there were three games in which there could have been pressure: at home to Poland, away to Hungary and at home to Albania. England won all three, the last two of those by an aggregate 9-0. Previous England sides have often struggled to dispatch lesser sides who sit deep against them; under Southgate they have revelled in that – which is another reason Kane’s remarkable goals return shouldn’t be dismissed.
While the 1-1 draw at home to Hungary was frustrating, the two matches that raise greater concerns were those against Poland. England controlled the early part of the meeting at Wembley, went ahead and then fell back, leading to a Poland equaliser. England did burgle a late winner, although Southgate had not made any substitutions before it arrived and the shape of the game had barely changed. Then, in Poland, England again sat off having taken the lead and on that occasion ended up conceding in injury-time to drop two points.
No side has won a major tournament playing a columnist’s romantic ideal of football since probably France in 1984
On the one hand, taking four points from the second team in the group is a useful return (and an important one: had those results been reversed, Poland would have been in a position to finish above England with a draw against Hungary on Monday), but on the other, both did highlight the one repeated failing of the Southgate reign, the tendency to drop too deep having taken the lead against decent opposition. It happened against Colombia and Croatia at the 2018 World Cup and it happened against Italy in the Euro 2020 final. The issue feels as much psychological as tactical and long predates Southgate but it is something that has to be resolved if England are ever to win anything.
That’s not to say England should be gung-ho, or that there is anything wrong about the basic balance of the side. Southgate has been admirably strong in resisting the temptation to try to shoehorn in more of England’s vast array of attacking talent. More than the 39 goals scored, the most impressive statistic from qualifying is perhaps that they let in only three. As at the Euros, there are sure to be pleas before the World Cup for him to let the players off the leash, to give them their head, but the truth is that no side has won a major tournament playing a columnist’s romantic ideal of football since probably France in 1984.
It’s the nature of international football that far too much is read into individual games, and no experiment should be entirely written off on the basis of one match, but it did feel significant that England’s worst performance in qualifying was against Hungary, when Southgate fielded both Phil Foden and Mason Mount in midfield with Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling on the flanks. The idea that good players will work it out – which surely was disproved by the Gerrard-Lampard conundrum that blighted a generation – neglects the fact that England have four very good central midfielders anyway, in Jude Bellingham, Jordan Henderson, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice.
The most encouraging aspect of the past two international windows for England has been the form of Foden, who felt peripheral at the Euros – even if there was a sense he was missed in the later stages against Italy. But if Foden plays, that probably means only one of Sterling and Mount, both of whom have been regulars when fit, can be accommodated if the shape is to be the 3-4-3 Southgate used against Albania and San Marino, as well as against Germany and Italy in the summer.
That also means no starting berth for Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Emile Smith Rowe or Bukayo Saka (unless he plays at wing-back). But, as Argentina have found over the past decade and a half, having a fleet of gifted forwards is an advantage only if properly deployed; an international side must be thought of like a normal team, with its own dynamic, not as a reward for good domestic performances.
The quest for structure and balance may mean that, at times, England struggle to break down opponents who sit deep – as Hungary did at Wembley. But so long as England get through the group, that doesn’t really matter. As Ramsey understood, tournaments are won not by thrashing lesser sides, but by beating good ones. England are contenders in Qatar and that means the next year has to be spent preparing for games against the elite. That may not be exciting, but it is necessary.