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.
As 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.
Guardiola 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.
A new era
In 2016, Southgate took over the senior role in a temporary capacity after Sam Allardyce’s England reign came to an end after a single game.
Initially, Southgate continued with the 4-2-3-1 formation popular with his predecessors before moving the older and less technical players from the squad and switching to a 3-4-3.
This 3-4-3 lent itself to the Positional Play model that is so difficult to replicate at international level. The basis of Positional Play is to create a system that allows players to occupy the division of spaces left within the 4-4-2 formation, which naturally forms these players into a 3-4-3.
This shape, in combination with a short passing game and a high-defensive line, also lends itself well to counter-pressing: more the Bielsan model (Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola, Unai Emery) that is focused on forcing the opposition to play the ball long than the Germanic model that is focused on setting traps to win the ball high (Jurgen Klopp, Roger Schmidt, Ralf Rangnick).
Later, in preparation for the World Cup, England changed formation again to a 3-5-2 that becomes a 3-3-3-1 in attack.
This tweak simultaneously addressed England’s weakness in central midfield and surplus in attacking midfield but is close enough to the 3-4-3 that this simplistic interpretation of Positional Play can still be replicated.
The World Cup
Finally, we arrive at England’s World Cup game against Tunisia, the first time England’s senior team have won their opening tie at a competition in twelve years.
The first half was a textbook display both Southgate’s ideals both in and out of possession.
The successful implementation of these systems saw England rack up a number of high-quality chances, although the Three Lions failed to capitalise with some poor attempts at finishing.
In the second half and with the score at 1-1, Tunisia look set to make England pay for their wastefulness. They switched to a 5-3-1-1 shape custom-designed to disrupt England’s play.
However, this was possibly the best thing that could have happened to England.
In previous tournaments, the toxic environment that surrounds the England National Team begins to show whenever things get tough, most notably in England’s 2016 Euros lost to Iceland.
In that game, the intangibles fell through. The anxiety created by decades of media pressure and character assassination was visible on England players’ faces, especially that of Raheem Sterling.
Two years later, in Russia, we saw an echo of the Under-21s’ late victory against Germany. With not only the ideas set in place but a firm knowledge of how to enact them, the England players continued to stick to the gameplan despite the pressure on them.
When Harry Kane scored in injury time, England fans had experienced something they were not used to experiencing: a feeling of positivity at the way England had played out a football match.
That late England winner came through their second set-piece goal of the game but this is no cop-out or streak of luck.
Though set-piece success is more commonly associated with defensive, physical and reactive teams, England’s success in that department is also part and parcel of their proactive approach.
England were not simply lumping the ball into a bunch of big lads and hoping for the best. The Three Lions brought with them a set-piece ploy.
Again and again on free-kicks and corners, England looked for Harry Maguire who would isolate himself against the single furthest defender. From there Maguire would then look to head the ball back across the goal to a player at the opposite post.
Sooner or later, this single ploy will be found out. But, if England have brought with them a series of different options, one per game would suffice and set-piece goals could see them all the way.
On top of this, Tunisia may well have shown remaining oppositions the value of deploying a 5-3-1-1 against England.
If Southgate can react to this by either switching back to a 3-4-3 when required or creating passing combinations that free up wide centre-backs to carry the ball forward, then he will have turned England into the complete international outfit.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss England's victory of Tunisia on Kremlins in the Basement - RealSport's daily World Cup podcast.
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