“I think it’s about time now that Gareth and his staff brought an identity to English football and the national team that we can be proud of,” Paul Scholes said in the aftermath of England’s encouraging 1-0 defeat – yes, there is such a thing – away to Germany.
The former Manchester United midfielder was referencing the new three-at-the-back system employed at Dortmund, even if a closer reading of his comments left some ambiguity. “If Southgate feels that’s the right way to go, I think it’s a really good way of playing,” Scholes told the BBC. “It’s going to be difficult and will take a bit of time, but if he’s playing this way and England are being successful then that’s what it’s all about.”
Not quite a ringing endorsement then.
There’s no doubt that three-men-defences are back in vogue, however. Antonio Conte’s Chelsea have done much to showcase the tactical flexibility and defensive stability that the system affords (if done correctly). More and more Bundesliga sides, too, break away from the 4-2-3-1 consensus of the decade to add more width in midfield in order to subvert the prevailing pressing game.
And in the specific England context, a formation with wing-backs comes with the added bonus of a retro feel-good factor. It brings back happy memories of the Venables and Hoddle years, when Her Majesty’s side were at their footballing best in tournaments.
Can Southgate’s new old-school tactics deliver the playing “identity” the national team so crave? A lack of collective identity on the pitch has long been seen as one of the main reasons why individually gifted pros have not raised above the mundane in a Three Lions shirt. Club systems, the argument goes, were so pronounced and varied, that England ended up with a jumble of styles, a wilful non-design that crammed all the best players in and then worried about their employment later.
Intuitively, this analysis of failures past feels right. But whether “an identity” is really the answer to England’s problems is far less clear. Firstly, it needs to be acknowledged that footballing identities, just like those in real life, are not eternal but fluid, and in constant evolution. Germany and Spain, to take the two most successful European teams in recent years, both have a recognisable style based on possession. But formations, rhythm and the way possession has been deployed have undergone a series of changes since 2010.
If we look at club sides, too, it’s obvious that there’s a push to transcend rigid dichotomies (reactive/active, possession/counter, aggressive/passive), to arrive at a state where teams can be all of the above, whenever the situation or the type of opponent calls for it. The ability to move collectively and coherently on the pitch is more important in practice than one overarching idea. What’s more, tactical identities that are too fixed and predictable make it easy for the opposition to devise counter-strategies.
For Southgate’s England, then, the main question isn’t so much about adopting one big plan and grand method, but effective collective methods to deal with the varieties of challenges they’re faced with.
A three-men defence that can become five at the back without the ball provides good cover and creates space up front for a very direct approach, as the Germany game showed. That set-up would allow England to thrive without possession – tactically and psychologically. Against the better teams in big competitions, this offers a very promising way forward.
But that’s not all. Southgate’s men also need to come up with strategies to break down a deep, unambitious side that have serially embarrassed them in the group stages in recent years. The starting formation can still be same, but the playing style and details can’t be. They have to take into account the material differences between Iceland and Italy. A singular “identity” simply won’t cut it.
Conflating particular systems/formations with an identity and insisting that the latter should inform all endeavours is therefore not helpful. Southgate should resist the urge to play to the gallery and instead come up with a variety of match plans suitable to the personnel and task at hand.
Identity still has a role to play, however. In order to get everybody on board and buy into a team that’s been a source of acrimony rather than pride and joy, there’s firstly a real need to define how England perceive themselves. Do they want to make up the numbers and hope for the best, wary of setting too high a target? Or can they formulate a more ambitious aim, with all the dangers that entails? It’s that tricky balance between confidence and entitlement that Southgate needs to get right. It’s OK that England don’t quite know who they are at the moment, in football and elsewhere. But they must know who they want to be.