England received plenty of criticism for their insistence on playing the ball out from the back after their Nations League semi-final defeat to Holland, which saw John Stones make two huge mistakes that led to the goals that saw the Three Lions lose in extra-time and condemned them to the 3rd-place play-off against Switzerland.
But England manager, Gareth Southgate, thought it would be mad to abandon one of the ‘bedrocks’ of his team’s development on the back of one bad night in Guimares, and when they returned to the Portuguese town three days later, it was back to keeping control of the ball against the Swiss.
After the Dutch defeat, Southgate couldn’t put his finger on why individual errors can spread, insisting that to play the way they want to play takes courage, and when it doesn’t work out then it’s very difficult for the players too.
Southgate said that rather than criticise his defenders, they should instead be praised for being prepared to take the ball in areas of the pitch where many defenders in the world wouldn’t, and that it is the foundation of how England have progressed so well under his stewardship.
A lot of what Southgate said is correct, but mistakes can quickly spread at the sight of a poor individual performance as confidence in someone’s decision making can quickly disappear, leaving a team scratching their heads at what to do for the best. This then leads to further indecision and further mistakes – a viscous spiral that only ends in one result.
While England should persist on playing out from the back, they should do it when they have the players to do it – not just in defence, but in midfield too. Being able to play out from the back is all well and good, but the players receiving the ball need to have the ability as well, showing for the ball in the right areas, or turning their marker to create the space.
England didn’t have this against Holland because Southgate’s preparation had been disrupted by Liverpool and Tottenham’s involvement in the Champions League final just six days earlier. Southgate refused to start any Liverpool or Spurs player against Holland, and instead set-up with a midfield containing Declan Rice and Fabian Delph.
Rice and Delph are both very good players, but not the one’s you’d think of when needing creativity in the middle of the park. Based on the players Southgate had at his disposal for the Dutch game, he should have shown flexibility on the tactics employed rather than just hope. England’s new style will bring them success that’s for sure, but only when the players are available.
Southgate has done miracles for England, bringing a new feel good factor back to the national team. But he got his selection wrong for this one. Thankfully all’s well that end’s well, and England can boast a 3rd-place finish in the Nations League as well as another penalty shootout victory.