On Monday, England finally entered the modern era with a complete display of proactive football against Tunisia.
Football has changed a lot over the last decade or so. The defensive, reactive ‘zonal low block’ has become a tool available to all and one that is readily used by many coaches.
This defensive approach - which can be summed up as simply ‘good collective defending’ - required a counter for football to remain entertaining for the viewer, not to mention profitable for the ‘big club’ owner. It was inevitable, then, that we would arrive at the invention of ‘good collective attacking’.
A natural parity
Becoming increasing popular, this 'proactive' football usually takes form - on the elite club stage at least - as the tactical philosophies of ‘Positional Play’ in possession and ‘Counter-Pressing’ out of it.
However, these ideologies require hundreds of training days, tens of matches and budgets that can address squad weaknesses to get working.
REUTERS/Lee SmithAs a result, those luxuries are not afforded to international managers and so modern international football carries a natural parity which can certainly make for some interesting narratives: plucky Iceland finding an impressive run at the 2016 Euros and continuing now into their World Cup; their victims, underperforming Argentina; and yes, England sides.
There are, of course, exceptions. This last decade has been predominantly dominated by Spain and Germany. Their exceptionalism is probably best explained by a combination of domestic in-balance at club level and one man: Pep Guardiola.
The Guardiola Effect
Guardiola is probably the talisman for these proactive philosophies.
His high-achieving management of Barcelona and Bayern Munich provided Spain and Germany, respectively, with a bedrock of players, practised at playing these systems with one another that they could simply carry on over into the summer.
Photo Credit: Thomas RodenbücherGuardiola now resides in England, recording the greatest ever Premier League points tally with Manchester City but there’s no immediate pay-off for the Three Lions: only four City players have been called up to England’s squad - and probably, rightfully so.
England’s talent is much more evenly spread out throughout their domestic league - five Tottenham players, four from Manchester United, Liverpool three, Chelsea and Leicester each two - all playing different iterations of the game, although City, Spurs and, to a lesser extent, Liverpool and Chelsea have been operating proactive styles under current management.
England have become a team noted for the failures - some more dramatic than others - that have come under a stream of coaches all noted for their success in domestic football playing almost exclusively reactive football
One only has to think of Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello, Stuart Pearce, Roy Hodgson and Sam Allardyce to recognise this trend. In fact, the latter two will likely continue to find success with their reactive styles at lower level clubs who play that majority of games without the expectancy to attack.
Gareth Southgate took his first step into coaching when Steve McClaren, his manager at the time, left Middlesbrough to accept the England job. His transition from player to coach, then, was immediate.
With no time afforded to him to develop his coaching skills, his time at Middlesbrough was a display of the reactive coaching that followed on from McClaren before him. It started well enough but he was eventually sacked having seen the club relegated.
A learning curve
Southgate’s true education began after entering the FA’s staff, initially in a senior backroom role and later as head coach of England's Under-21s.
Over the period of three years, England’s most senior academy side were not just developing players, they were developing Southgate as a coach as well as a coaching initiative that, in 2014, would be labelled ‘England DNA’.
These expressions of 'Playing Philosophy', from the FA’s ‘How We Play’ section, expound the basic fundamentals of modern proactive football.
The best demonstration of these ideals during Southgate’s Under-21s tenure can be seen in a 35-pass sequence that helped secured a 3-2 comeback against Germany.