Criticism of Gareth Southgate intensified after he named four right-backs in his squad. This negativity is misplaced. Southgate’s England squad are primed for glory.
England won't play with a right-back, not when it matters the most. Once you understand this, it makes perfect sense why Gareth Southgate selected all four of Kyle Walker, Reece James, Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold in his squad. All things considered, it is arguably England's strongest squad at a major tournament in decades, and it's partly because he has taken all four of those players.
What the 26 players selected by the England manager tell us is England, against the elite opposition, will be lining up in a 3-4-2-1 formation. With this strategy, the England squad has two players to cover each defensive position, with nine players to choose from in the three attacking positions. Southgate hasn't taken four right-backs. He's taken two right-sided centre-backs and two right-wingbacks.
When you break the squad down, when you look at the players for each position, it looks like this:
Those are the options Southgate has decided offer the best chance of beating France, Belgium, Germany and Spain. That's why he has taken all four of Walker, James, Trippier and Alexander-Arnold, because when it counts the most, England won't play with a right-back. Walker or James will play in the back three, and Trippier or Alexander-Arnold will play at wing-back.
Once you realise that, you see the squad for the quality selection it is. There are two good-to-great players for every defensive position. Mason Mount is able to cover central midfield if necessary, likewise Bukayo Saka can cover the wing-back roles in case of a crisis. In attack, you have seven top-drawer talents competing for two positions, while Calvert-Lewin offers solid back-up to the best striker in the competition and Rashford able to play in any of the three roles. The only possible tweak that could've improved it would be sacrificing one of the attack midfielders or wide-men for Ings, Bamford or Watkins, but with both Foden and Sterling having played as a false-nine for Manchester City, there are conceivably five options for that central role.
This is a very good, very balanced squad, once you understand it will be 3-4-2-1 against the best opponents. England may well play a variation of 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 at times, but Croatia, Scotland and the Czechs will be stern opposition for various reasons, and defensive stability is what wins international tournaments, and that squad has been selected with that in mind. It's a squad that justifies England being second-favourites with the bookmakers, and it's a squad that is capable of beating France, Germany, Belgium and Spain.
Southgate has taken stick off the fans and media for his selection, with a lot of it focused on his opting to bring Walker, James, Trippier and Alexander-Arnold. You'd think people would have a bit more nous about something they've spent most of their lives obsessing over. The bare minimum of thinking shows that Southgate has made the right call. You can argue for another striker, and it is perhaps the biggest criticism of the squad, but Bamford, Watkins and Ings are unproven at international level, and - while effective - they aren't worth getting your knickers in a twist over. There are three strikers and two false-nine options to fill one position for seven matches, which is more than enough.
The underlying issue behind all the criticism is a lack of respect for Southgate's achievements, which are spoken-down at every opportunity. Somehow, reaching a World Cup semi-final and losing to an extra-time goal is not good enough for a sizeable proportion of people, despite the fact England have only reached one other World Cup semi-final in 54 years. Somehow, a team that was written-off before that tournament began is now seen as a failure for not making the final, despite exceeding the achievements of far stronger squads in the past. Somehow, a country whose only tournament win in 52 years prior to that World Cup was in Le Tournoi should see defeat to a team built around the Ballon d'Or winner as a monumental failure. What a load of nonsense.
Maybe Southgate's managerial record prior to the England job is the reason for the distrust people seem to have in him. This distrust is misplaced. Southgate, as both a player and a manager, has reached an international semi-final with England. He knows what makes a successful squad tick in the unique environment of tournament football. Since that semi-final defeat, they have stuck five past the Czechs and beaten Belgium, so this tournament needs hold no fear.
The comparison for Southgate is Joachim Löw, who had achieved little in the club game before being promoted from assistant to manager of his nation. He, too, oversaw an influx of promising young talent into the senior squad. He, too, was a losing semi-finalist in his first international tournament, and he repeated that in his next two tournaments. In the fourth, Löw's Germany came of age, massacring Brazil in their home World Cup before claiming the trophy. This is the pathway Southgate should be judged on, and he is right on course to emulate it. Should England lose in the semi-finals again, Southgate should retain his job, and be entrusted to continue his fine work. Even a quarter-final defeat shouldn't be enough to threaten his job, depending on the circumstances.
There's a little sneaky suspicion of mine that keeps eating away at me. In 2018, England got to the World Cup semi-finals with a young, developing squad. A lot of that squad have matured into winners, with league titles, domestic cups and Champions League's aplenty between them in the last three years. This squad, with the rub of the green and a bit of luck, could go very far in this competition. A large part of me thinks they could be coming home with the trophy, and that it wouldn't be the last trophy they win. This squad has all the potential in the world, and the right manager to guide them there. It's time to trust in Southgate, get your waistcoats out and enjoy the summer, because it's going to be a very special one indeed.
Let me know your thoughts on Southgate’s squad selection and England’s chances in the comments.
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