Lacklustre, jaded and clueless, Gareth Southgate’s England are a team way lesser than the sum of its parts. Unless a miracle marries a spectacular England display, they are far from bringing it home at the FIFA World Cup 2022.
When the full-time whistle blew at The Molineux on Tuesday (June 15th) and the camera turned to Gareth Southgate speaking to Hungary manager Marco Rossi, the puzzled look on his face told a thousand words.
He could not believe what he had just witnessed. England had suffered their heaviest home defeat since 1928 at the hands of Hungary, a side that has not qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
The result divided opinions on social media between those who want Southgate at the helm in Qatar and those who do not. However, the performances and results (2 losses and 2 draws) in the UEFA Nation’s League have made one thing abundantly clear: Gareth Southgate’s England are far from being contenders at FIFA World Cup 2022.
Southgate & England’s Brexit from clarity
On the same day that England suffered the historic defeat, Germany, who have found form under newly appointed Hansi Flick, thrashed reigning European champions Italy 5-2. The former Bayern Munich manager has found success by encouraging Germany to play a higher line and press higher up the pitch, much like his treble winning Bayern side did in the 2019/20 season.
Germany, who were knocked out at the Euros by Southgate’s men, are playing free-flowing attacking football with a clear game plan in the final third, unlike England. Spain had an outstanding Euros to the surprise of plenty of fans and their success can be attributed to manager Luis Enrique’s clarity of thought with regard to the football he wants his side to play.
For instance, his decision to stick with Unai Simon in goal and not picking Manchester United’s David de Gea in the squad simply because of his inability to pass, which was seen as a bold decision but has paid rich dividends for him thus far and Spain are unbeaten in their last 8 games.
The appointment of Louis van Gaal has worked out really well for the Netherlands as well and they are unbeaten in their last 13 games. The former Barcelona and Manchester United boss has ensured he makes the most of the quality center halves at his disposal by playing a 3-man defense and has ensured their most reliable midfielder Frenkie de Jong is able to play with more freedom and maximize his ball carrying abilities.
The one factor that these 3 European heavy weights have in common is that there is clarity in their manager’s thoughts about the kind of football they want their sides to play.
Too defensive & too scared to lose?
Ever wondered why Gareth Southgate never gets mentioned in any rumour mill when a Premier League manager is sacked? There is a reason. In the modern-day scenario, where you have Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Graham Potter’s Brighton, Southgate is seen as tactically inept to lead a Premier League team.
To his credit, the former England international has done one thing that previous managers have been incapable of doing – making PL players from rival clubs gel as a squad. Having said that, if camaraderie would have won you titles, Iceland should be crowned champions every day of the year.
Gareth Southgate is still unsure of the formation that suits England the most and takes a pragmatic approach by setting the Three Lions up in a low block and instructing them to counter-attack.
England have not scored an open-play goal in 6 hours now because their forwards are often isolated in the final third. The reliance on moments of brilliance is an unsustainable way of winning football matches and England’s attackers have begun looking clueless ahead of the halfway line.
“Now hang on a minute, didn’t Gareth Southgate reach a World Cup semi-final and a Euro final. What am I not seeing?”
Right, let’s dig in.
Luck favours the dull & boring, sometimes
Scoff you may at this mention but England got extremely favourable draws at the 2018 World Cup, look at the list of teams they played – Tunisia, Panama, Belgium, Colombia, Sweden and Croatia.
England needed a last-minute Harry Kane winner to beat Tunisia in the opening game, lost their group stage game to Belgium (the only heavy-weight side they faced in the tournament), beat Colombia on penalties after Jordan Pickford’s heroics in extra time and lost to Croatia (the second heavyweight they faced) in the semi-finals after taking the early lead.
They did have a deep run in the tournament but their shortcomings against well-drilled oppositions were there for the world to see.
Let’s talk Euro 2020, where England scored just 2 goals in their 3 group stage games and faced Ukraine and Denmark in the quarter and semi-finals of the tournament.
Italy, on the other hand, faced Belgium and Spain in the quarter and semi-finals of the tournament, respectively. They enjoyed deep runs in both the major tournaments but the luck of the draw has helped them evade pre-tournament favorites on both the occasions.
Premier League trouble for Southgate
There is another growing concern for Gareth Southgate going into Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup. Unlike other WCs, which take place during June and July, the 2022 World Cup will be taking place in November and December, in the middle of the football season.
The headache for Southgate will be that he will have players playing in vastly different systems for a grueling 3 months of the Premier League and Champions League having to adopt to his pragmatic style of football.
Among those whose spots are locked, two of his back three members, John Stones and Kyle Walker, play for Manchester City, who dominate possession and territory and play a fiercely high line. It will be extremely difficult for them to adjust to the deep block that Gareth Southgate sets England up in where they surrender possession to the opponents.
Southgate tends to prefer Raheem Sterling on the wings and whereas at City, he has to use his exceptional dribbling ability and link up play to break down low blocks, Southgate will expect him to use his explosive pace to play counter-attacking football.
Harry Kane drops deep in settled possession under Antonio Conte because of his passing range but his best goal-scoring form in the last year came after Dejan Kulusevki joined Tottenham, added creativity to the side and allowed him to excel as a #9 and make his presence felt in the box. Under Southgate, Harry Kane often drops as deep as Rice and Kalvin Philips because of the lack of creativity in midfield.
Southgate’s insistence on playing two CDMs and a 3-man system, which often stifles creativity in the England side. His insistence to play an extremely defensive set-up to avoid conceding goals and play counter-attacking football puts far too much pressure on Harry Kane to drop deep to create chances.
What will be Southgate’s XI at FIFA World Cup 2022?
So, let’s discuss what I think is England’s best XI going into the World Cup in Qatar and what would give them the best chance of enjoying a deep run.
Gareth Southgate should revert to the 3-man system that he used at the WC in 2018 and should opt for a 3-4-3.
In goal, Jordan Pickford should be a lock. The Everton goalkeeper had a stellar end to the campaign and his heroics towards the end of the season helped them avoid relegation to the Championship. He had an exceptional Euro 2020 and has done absolutely nothing wrong to lose his spot.
For his three-man defence Gareth Southgate should opt for Kyle Walker at RCB whose excellent recovery pace will be crucial against sides with explosively fast wingers looking to counter-attack.
At the heart of the trio, John Stones leaves no room for debate. Stones has been rock-solid at the back for England in their last 2 major tournaments and showed his class in Ruben Dias’ absence at Manchester City during the business end of last season.
For LCB position, there will be shouts for several center-halves like AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori and Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi. However, despite his shambolic 21/22 season, Gareth Southgate should not and will not look beyond Harry Maguire. His ball-progression is extremely important for England to get higher up the pitch and he has not put a foot wrong for England in the last two major tournaments.
It is critical that he gets off to a good start this season for his form will be a key factor that determines how far England goes in the World Cup.
The full-back conundrum
The RWB position is a real headache for Southgate because he has to choose between Reece James and Trent Alexander Arnold. The Liverpool defender has improved leaps and bounds defensively this season and his offensive output is second to none among defenders in world football. He recorded 15 assists in the Premier League & Champions League this season and should pip Reece James to the RWB spot.
However, if history is anything to go by, Gareth Southgate almost refuses to use arguably the best right-back in the world and we might see Kieran Trippier or Reece James favoured over the Liverpool youngster.
At LWB, there is a lot of uncertainty because of Luke Shaw’s concerning form since he took the world by storm at the 2020 Euros. His competitor, Ben Chilwell, has not featured in a game since suffering a season-ending injury in a Champions League game on 23rd November, 2021. This decision will go down to the wire and will surely depend on the form of these two players in the build-up to the main event.
The need for a creative midfield
It is in the middle of the park is where Gareth Southgate has to make some bold decisions. Declan Rice’s sheer tenacity off the ball, great positional awareness and ability to drive the ball forward makes him a guaranteed starter in the double pivot.
Alongside him, however, Southgate should resist the temptation to play Kalvin Philips and opt for young Jude Bellingham. The Borussia Dortmund starlet, who has drawn interest from Real Madrid & Liverpool, ranks in the 91st percentile in shot-creating actions among midfielders in Europe and will add a much-needed creative spark to the England midfield. His defensive work rate has improved over the course of last season and he should be given a chance to shine on the biggest stage.
On the right of the front three, Southgate is likely to go for Raheem Sterling. Sterling’s goals in the group stages of the Euro single-handedly won England the group and his explosive pace on the counter attack and ability to score in crucial moments makes him indispensable in Southgate’s set up.
At #9, the England captain Harry Kane will start and his passing range, ability to come up with a goal out of nothing and excellent hold up play makes him one of the most lethal #9s in the tournament and arguably the most important piece of the England puzzle.
Back Jack – Why Grealish must start for England
The left wing is also where Gareth Southgate must make a bold decision. Southgate must put his agendas aside and start Jack Grealish on the left. Southgate’s unwillingness to start Grealish despite him making a stellar impact nearly every time he plays for England is puzzling at times.
His ability to gravitate defenders towards him and make space for the other forwards in the team has its weight worth in gold. It is important to note that Grealish ranks in the 96th percentile among attacking midfielders and wingers for shot-creating actions and in the 99th percentile for progressive carries and instantly solves the two biggest problems that Southgate’s England are facing currently, creating goal-scoring chances and getting the ball up the field.
To conclude, there is a lot for Gareth Southgate to ponder over before the FIFA World Cup 2022 begins in November and I suspect there is far too much to be sorted out in too little time for them to make a serious bid for the coveted prize.
With no formation set in stone yet, uncertainty around player roles and selections, lack of goal-scoring chances being created and the insistence of their manager to play counter-attacking football despite having such creative players in the squad could be the reasons why this World Cup could be yet another ‘What If’ moment for England fans and another big tournament where it ‘does not come home’.