Southgate finally proves he can throw some shapes on England’s dancefloor | England

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Squint at the picture, tilt your head, let the magic-eye patterns settle and the reason for Gareth Southgate’s quietly chipper mood in front of the cameras in the soft-finish underbelly of the Allianz Arena late on Tuesday becomes a bit clearer.

On the face of it the 1-1 draw with Germany in Munich was inconclusive. For the opening hour England were the more ponderous team. Germany were slick in short bursts, reconfigured by Hansi Flick to blitz-press high up the pitch and funnel the ball with an agreeable rat-a-tat speed through midfield.

For all that, Southgate had, and these things are relative, a kind of bullishness about him at the end, shedding his default persona in recent months – rueful interim headmaster at an inspirational secondary academy – in favour of a faint but discernible friskiness.

The reason for this might get lost in the cacophony of resentment and grudge-tending that must follow any England game. In football, as in every other area of human life, positions tend to be set these days, heroes and villains enthroned in perpetuity. Half an hour after England had dug out a commendable draw in Germany #Southgateout was trending on social media. And not, it turns out, ironically.

This skein of hostility is in part a function of simple repetition. It has been six years now. Pick out five minutes, any five minutes, of Southgate’s England and you will know instantly what it is you are watching: Southgate’s England, the same nicely turned substance, the same patterns, the same limits. At times this England team feel like a particularly well-made cardigan that flatly refuses to wear out or fray at the edges, thereby justifying a jazzier, sparklier, fast-fashion replacement.

But the fact is England did do something different in Munich. Buried beneath the familiar shapes and faces there was a note of progress here. They came back.

Losing to a more fluent team, Southgate changed the game and England got better. This is significant, because it is also the thing he has previously failed at. It is a regular point in the rolling ledger of Southgate criticisms that England’s manager fails to react in real time to the key tactical details. In successive late-stage games – Croatia at the World Cup, the Netherlands in the Nations League, Italy at the Euros – it has been England’s opponents who have been able to adapt after half-time and grasp the day.

This was different. Trailing to a Germany team managed by a Champions League-winning coach, with five Bayern Munich players on their home pitch, it was Southgate, the man who doesn’t dance, who altered the patterns with a substitution and a change of attacking midfield shape.

Southgate altered the pattern of the game against Germany with a substitution and a change in midfield.
Southgate altered the pattern of the game against Germany with a substitution and a change in midfield. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

This was not anything radical. But it was effective. Jack Grealish didn’t just come on for more of the same. He kept right out on the left touchline, stretching that space between Germany’s right-sided defenders. It was from there that England suddenly found urgency, space, ways into the game. They weren’t good enough to win it. But they finished strongly. Which is better than the previous default position, finishing limply.

And who knows, maybe something is being chewed over and added to here. Because Southgate will know that England do need something new as they head, a little wearily, for Doha in five months’ time.

In the last year this team have looked a little over-ripe at times. For all the talk of young guns and an unmatched (if you don’t follow European football much) spume of talent, England kicked off in Munich with seven players who also started at the 2018 World Cup. The new faces are Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, undeniably an upgrade. But there is nothing here to surprise an opponent, no extreme qualities, no unexpected shapes or angles. Other teams know what England are going to do. Even the strictly rationed unpredictability – a back four! Wait, no! A back five! – is predictable. Move on or move backwards. Is it too late now?

Southgate will surely gain some confidence in his own interventionist powers from that gambit against Germany. The other key detail is that he used a different shape. This was a compromise formation, not a revolutionary one. The 4-2-3-1 appeared in English football while Southgate was still playing. It offers two things. One for Gareth: the retention of that two-man deep midfield. One for the talent: an additional attacking player, four not three, as the 3-4-3 dictates.

In Munich this setup was only cautiously implemented, neither freeing the attack nor shoring up the defence. There are two reasons why this might be the case. The first relates to the strengths and weaknesses of Harry Maguire. In a back four Maguire will come under pressure to defend one versus one without cover behind. This is fine in the close clinches. He is an excellent man-to-man defender. But when attackers can run at him or force him to turn, his lack of agility and acceleration is a clear weakness.

As a result he drops deep, or sits on his heels. In Munich it was noticeable Maguire has a habit of walking backwards after he has passed the ball, just two or three paces, enough to play safe. The result of this, and of Germany’s extra man in the middle, was that at times England’s central midfielders were transformed into a version of McTominay-Fred, left with too much grass around them, constantly whirling about, lunging to intercept.

These pre-tournament games do reveal traces of what is to come, flaws and dead ends that will appear more vividly in the light of competition. This is an old problem for Southgate. A back four gives him more teeth. But playing Maguire as one of them decompresses the centre of the pitch, similar to the way Liverpool’s midfield press fell apart when they were deprived of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, players with the speed and skill to play a fearlessly high line.

Southgate has other options but little time to try them. The obvious tactical alternative is Fikayo Tomori, who is quick enough to play in a four but has not been fit for these games and has been left on the sidelines previously. Southgate loves his regulars and loyalty will build a team. But it can become a burden too.

The other issue lies in the full exploitation of the 4-2-3-1. It offers Kyle Walker at right-back, a genuine strength. It also gives a note of attacking flexibility. In this formation nine players have hard defensive responsibilities. But there is an opportunity to play a No 10 who just looks forward.

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Southgate played it safe by picking Mount, Saka and Raheem Sterling, three diligent runners. It is very hard to see him trusting Grealish with that role, even if this is the one place where he can simply play to his strengths. But there is also Phil Foden to come back, another prodigious talent in search of a clear role with England.

Add more pace to the defence and indulge yourself with a creative No 10. These are two quite radical ways Southgate could build on the stirrings of Munich; the sense of something, however small, being added. He is, on past behaviour, unlikely to do either, let alone both. But Southgate has been radical in other ways. And the fact is England have not looked like a team preparing to scale another peak. There is still time to speculate.

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