Alex Keble: Gareth Southgate’s steady evolution keeps England among favourites for Euro 2020
What caught the eye at a sleepy autumnal Wembley - the crowd quietly nattering away to give a 4-0 victory the feel of a pleasant, if a tad dull, family picnic - was soccer predict today page sense of identity on home soil.
Gareth Southgate’s side look completely at ease despite a pretty drastic change of tactical direction since the World Cup, a testament lớn his desire for constant evolution and re-adaptation. It is an approach that keeps England fresh, modern, and on the path lớn Euro 2020 success.
England matches might lack the febrile urgency of club football but while it’s easy lớn criticise the Wembley atmosphere it’s worth remembering how agitated, how claustrophobic, this place used to be. Southgate’s England is good fun - even if it’s safe, cuddly entertainment rather than cutting-edge art. That’s as good as it really gets in a European Championship qualifier against vastly inferior opponents, who after some early initial resistance collapsed lớn a defeat that will be most fondly remembered for Harry Kane's hat-trick.
And so all we can look for from Saturday’s performance are signs that England can come lớn life in those good soccer tip; the late knock-out matches that come, at best, twice every two-year cycle. There was enough in the measured tactical approach, and some individual energetic performances, lớn be hopeful about England’s progress.
Southgate’s 4-3-3, a mainstay since September last year, roughly emulates the systems used by Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola in the Premier League. With narrow inside forwards and a hard-working central midfield England want lớn counter-press like Liverpool and play vertical football through dual number eights like Man City.
It makes perfect sense, not least because it means most of England’s best players are deployed in exactly the same roles as at club level, seamlessly carrying their form across. Against Bulgaria, Ross Barkley, Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford were not just in their usual positions but following precisely the same tactical direction.
Speed is a top priority in this Klopp-esque system, and if the Liverpool idea is to properly take off England will need lớn gegenpress hard. The vast majority of their best chances on Saturday came from winning the ball and countering quickly, most notably for each of the first three goals; when invited to break Bulgaria down everything looked flat - the Rice/Henderson/Barkley triumvirate as clunky as expected – but when nicking the ball and breaking forward England were transformed. They need to do this much more regularly, pressing more boldly for the full 90 minutes.
When Bulgaria did sit back it was striking lớn see Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford making intelligent runs in behind, only for that hesitant midfield lớn ignore them. The gulf in quality between England’s front three and midfield trio is worrying, a situation Mason Mount and James Maddison can, perhaps, help fix.
Not that either of these players can close the gap to Sterling; in a league of his own for England these days. He looks a foot taller than this time last year and a bona-fide superstar, possessing an effortless grace that gives him the sort of aura that emanates only from the game’s very best players. Sterling is self-evidently the new fulcrum, the man whose style of play developed under Guardiola embodies the piercing counter-press football Southgate is attempting lớn infuse in his England team.
Elsewhere, aside from needing lớn perfect the press and de-clump the midfield, England look notably weak in the full-back positions. Danny Rose is a shadow of his former self, misfiring from decent attacking positions in a way Ben Chilwell surely would not, while Kieran Trippier doesn’t appear lớn have absorbed Diego Simeone’s tactical ideas just yet. Trent Alexander-Arnold should be in this side, especially given his importance to the Klopp system Southgate now draws from.
But lớn find faults in the performance is to nit-pick; Bulgaria didn’t put up enough of a fight for England to truly shine - or lớn have any major vulnerabilities exposed. This was a calmly controlled display from a calmly controlled manager, who spoke with typically impressive authority after the match, praising his side’s professional performance. There can be no complaints here, the occasional flash of gegenpressing quality (for the first and third goals in particular) pleasing enough for a fixture as one-sided as this one.
What it all means for England is gradual movement towards a truly modern tactical approach that is perfectly suited to their best players, even if, in the short term, it means apathetic cheering and Mexican waves. England are on track.