Should pragmatist Gareth Southgate switch things up in crucial England vs Germany clash?
If you thought you saw Gazza in the dentist chair a lot prior to England’s 0-0 bore draw with Scotland last Friday, just buckle up for the replays of Gareth Southgate’s missed penalty against Germany at Euro ‘96.
Like a swarm of locusts, they’re coming over the horizon – droning, buzzing, and gnawing away at sensible discourse with an insatiable appetite for sentimentality and revenge narratives that can be framed as “fairytales”.
After all, nothing is quite as quintessentially English as looking back with such fixation that we fail to notice the uncovered manhole in the pavement right in front of us.
But if there is one person who won’t be caught out by the pitfalls of sensationalism, it’s Southgate himself.
Ever since taking on the top job with England he has proven that he is a prudent, calming influence, and one who is not afraid to make sacrifices at the altar of pragmatism.
Even in the fledgling stages of this tournament he has persisted with a double midfield pivot of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, all the while resisting calls to gorge his starting XI on the veritable feast of attacking talents that he has at his disposal. It may not be overly popular with some fans, but we’re still yet to see Jack Grealish and Phil Foden on the pitch at the same time, and yet we never truly looked like finishing anywhere other than top of our group.
Taking all of that into account, it begs the questions as to whether Southgate will once again indulge his own brand of level-hedonism against the Germans at Wembley – especially in defence.
For a while now England have flitted between playing a traditional flat-back four and three centre-halves with two wing-backs. Even going into this tournament there were suggestions that it would be a five-man unit that the boss opted for.
Instead, Southgate played two centre-backs in each of the Three Lions’ three group stage outings, but the temptation must be there for him to reinforce that backline with an extra body against the first side we’ll face who pose a meaningful attacking threat.
Certainly, he isn’t short of options in that position. In spite of the mild hysteria surrounding him going into the tournament, Tyrone Mings barely put a foot wrong during his stint deputising for Harry Maguire in the opening couple of matches, and now that the Manchester United skipper is back from injury, he and John Stones look like a settled and solid partnership.
Looking beyond that trio, Conor Coady has excelled in a back three during his time in the Premier League with Wolves, Kyle Walker has played there for England before on numerous occasions, and Ben White is capable of doing more than just making up the numbers this summer.
In short, Southgate has the tools, but should he get them out of his toolbox? The old adage goes that if it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it, and three clean sheets in three matches would suggest that there’s not a whole lot broken at the moment.
Over the course of the last 12 months, England have played four at the back around 48% of the time, according to stats database Wyscout. During those outings, they’ve conceded just once, in a World Cup qualifier against Poland back in March.
By comparison, Southgate has employed three centre-backs just 36% of the time, but has conceded on three occasions during that shorter spell. All three goals came against Belgium in UEFA Nations League clashes.
Playing a three at the back seemingly has a negative impact on England going forward too.
You don’t have to be Columbo to figure out why that may be, but the numbers show that England relinquish nearly 7% more possession without a four-man defence, make nearly 100 passes fewer per 90 minutes, and score 0.15 fewer goals per game.
For a side that scored just twice in the group stage and have the lowest rate of positive ball progression out of any team in the tournament – according to Opta – the last thing the Three Lions need is more conservatism.
Granted, football is a game of horses for courses, and there are valid arguments to be made for a five-man defence helping to stifle the electric pace of Timo Werner and Serge Gnabry, or for less restricted wide options pinning back the opposing threat of Leroy Sane or Robin Gosens.
At some point, however, England have to accept that they need to go toe-to-toe with the continent’s biggest sides if they want to establish themselves as genuine contenders to win this thing.
Yes, Southgate is a pragmatist extraordinaire, and yes, it’s served his side well thus far – even if it hasn’t always been a thrilling spectacle.
But the key here is recognising that pragmatism doesn’t always have to equate to negativity – the tortoise would never have beaten the hare if they’d spent all afternoon hiding in their shell.
Come Tuesday evening, England will need to be cautious against a very good team, absolutely – but that doesn’t mean that they have to be petrified into submission.