Gareth Southgate's England headaches: Conservative football, Harry Maguire's mental state and a failing formation

Jason Burt
·7 min read
Soccer Football - UEFA Nations League - League A - Group 2 - England v Denmark - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - October 14, 2020 England's Harry Kane looks dejected after the match - Pool via REUTERS /TOBY MELVILLE 
Soccer Football - UEFA Nations League - League A - Group 2 - England v Denmark - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - October 14, 2020 England's Harry Kane looks dejected after the match - Pool via REUTERS /TOBY MELVILLE

England's defeat by Denmark was a shameful footnote of history, as they had two players sent off in one game for the first time. 

This summed up a night in which England's good work against Belgium a few days previously was undone. Southgate, too, will face scrutiny over his team selection with Grealish remaining on the bench, despite the talismanic impact he made against Wales last week, as he turned to Jadon Sancho, who has barely played, instead.

Problems are now mounting. Here are five important areas that England must address sooner rather than later. 

A growing conservatism

Jack Grealish is inadvertently beginning to find himself in the uncomfortable position of being the poster boy for those looking to criticise Gareth Southgate. It is not where the 25-year-old will want to be and it does not do him any favours.

But neither, surely, will he be happy to have not played a single minute of England’s two competitive games after his man-of-the-match performance in the friendly against Wales and with Southgate hailing him as a “matador”. Comparisons with Paul Gascoigne do not help Grealish either and neither does Southgate’s apparent allusions to the midfielder – or is he an attacker? – not working hard enough and not being quick enough.

“He’s got a better understanding of how we want to play,” Southgate said, before adding after the defeat by Denmark: “We needed speed around [Harry Kane], we needed legs to be able to defend with 10 and Mason [Mount] and Marcus [Rashford] have done that and we were still a threat. We needed the speed of Jadon [Sancho] and Dominic [Calvert-Lewin] either side because when you’re having to defend and wait for your moment, you’ve got to be able to counter-attack quickly. So they were the changes.”

What is strange is Southgate’s reluctance to mix things up. “I think we’ve been pretty bold in many of our decisions over a long period of time, really,” he said, but that relates only to blooding young players. He now appears wedded to an essentially conservative system and is willing to ignore the fact that, say, with 10 men he should have adapted because of Grealish’s ability to run with the ball, retain possession and – crucially – draw fouls. Southgate needs to be more flexible and maybe even off-the-cuff, and Grealish is an important part of that, given that the circumstances of the defeat by Denmark cried out for a player with his skill-set.

The Harry Maguire problem

England's Harry Maguire is shown a red card for a foul on Denmark's Kasper Dolberg during the UEFA Nations League Group 2, League A match at Wembley Stadium, London - PA/Daniel Leal Olivas 
England's Harry Maguire is shown a red card for a foul on Denmark's Kasper Dolberg during the UEFA Nations League Group 2, League A match at Wembley Stadium, London - PA/Daniel Leal Olivas

As with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Harry Maguire’s club manager at Manchester United, Gareth Southgate has been steadfast in his support of the 27-year-old – describing him as England’s best defender. After Maguire’s sending off against Denmark Southgate dismissed suggestions the centre-half is in need of a rest. “The best place for him is on the pitch,” Southgate argued. Except Maguire is a shadow of the player who was so dominant at the 2018 World Cup and the faith in him has not been justified by his recent performances which have culminated in costing England three points in their Nations League campaign.

 It is now not Southgate’s problem, with Maguire returning to his club. “They will deal with that in the appropriate way,” Southgate said. “They’ve got good people there, experienced people, and they’ll assess where he is at.

“My view would be that you’ve got to play your way through these moments. He’s too important a player for them and us to think about resting him, but that would be for Ole and his staff to make those decisions.”

But there are just three weeks before the next England squad is named, so there will also be a decision for Southgate to make. He will undoubtedly select Maguire but it may be in the player’s best interests for him to step out of the spotlight for a few days to rest and recover.

In the long run that may well benefit England – and Maguire – more. It is not as if he is so vital to the way Southgate wants to play that he has to be included. Maguire seems to have been affected by his conviction in a Greek court

Formation

Why has Gareth Southgate returned to a back three? It served England well at the World Cup, but afterwards Southgate admitted that his formation – essentially then 5-3-2 – was limited in going all the way to winning a tournament. The intention was to play 4-3-3, which, it was felt, would get the best out of England’s attacking players, led by Harry Kane.

However, this also depended on the right players emerging to control the midfield and it seems Southgate has concluded he does not have the personnel. So he has returned to the back three and, although it has been adapted to a 3-4-3, the same problems emerge, especially if the two central midfield players are essentially defensive pivots, as Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips are, and the pair started both games against Denmark.

Sports Briefing
Sports Briefing

It means that England are reliant on the three forward players to provide the creativity unless the wing-backs can get forward. The problem then is that if the wing-backs attack, the better teams can exploit the space in behind them – especially if the centre-halves, such as Maguire, are not quick.

Also, Southgate appears to be determined to make it work and not change his approach according to circumstances – hence the odd decision to bring on Dominic Calvert-Lewin against Denmark but to play the centre-forward on the left.

The system also encourages England to play long diagonal passes, which can be risky, rather than build possession as the best teams do. During a tournament it means that England may be starved of the ball and tire, as they did in Russia.

Discipline

 Reece James of England gets a red card at end of gamebfrom referee Jesús Gil Manzano at end of the England v Denmark UEFA Nations League Group B match at Wembley Stadium on October 14th 2020 in Londo - NMC Pool/Tom Jenkins 
Reece James of England gets a red card at end of gamebfrom referee Jesús Gil Manzano at end of the England v Denmark UEFA Nations League Group B match at Wembley Stadium on October 14th 2020 in Londo - NMC Pool/Tom Jenkins

Maybe the discipline issues England have faced are largely unrelated, but nevertheless there is a trend and it appears to be cumulative, and Gareth Southgate knows he has to get on top of what is going on. Much store is put in the harmony of the squad, the strength of its leadership group – which, interestingly, Southgate suggested, already now includes Conor Coady – and the trust that the manager puts in his players. But some players have taken advantage of it.

Southgate is no soft touch and is prepared to make tough decisions, especially when it comes to squad selection, but from the bust-up with Raheem Sterling attacking Joe Gomez last year to Reece James’s red card after the final whistle against Denmark for foul and abusive language towards the referee, there have been a damaging series of incidents. The coronavirus-related ones led to Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden excluded from the squad, and while Jadon Sancho missed the friendly against Wales he was used against Belgium and Denmark as a substitute while Grealish kicked his heels.

The incident involving James is worrying, given it was his full debut. He is just 20 – and yet he showed ill-discipline and is now suspended. Southgate is to be encouraged for bringing in so many young players, and James was England’s man of the match, but the manager also needs to reassert standards. He said he had talked to the players about this and yet there were two red cards against Denmark – and that has to be a concern.

“Disciplinary-wise we have to be better than that on the field,” Southgate admitted. “We open ourselves up for criticism and it makes the game so much harder.”