ST PETERSBURG: For years England have tried – and failed – to copy the styles of successful European national teams, but now Gareth Southgate appears to have found a way to replicate the intensity of England’s best Premier League teams.
The 6-1 win over Panama on Sunday may have come against one of the tournament’s weakest sides, making definitive conclusions unwise, but the manner of the victory certainly highlighted the work Southgate has done with the team.
Although Southgate’s formation and tactics have been hailed as progressive and modern, there is also something traditionally English about the team’s strengths.
After Swede Sven Goran Eriksson, who made his name in Italy’s Serie A, was unable to succeed with his attempt to instil a ‘continental style’ of play, Italian coach Fabio Capello failed in turn with his rigid approach.
Too often under Roy Hodgson, another coach with vast European experience, England were slow and hesitant, leaving fans wondering why players who are so confident and effective with their Premier League clubs appear to freeze in an England shirt.
By way of explanation, there has been a focus on the ‘fear factor’ from over-high expectations and pressure, of a hostile media and of England being behind the times in so many areas.
Yet what Southgate has already shown is that if English players are given the licence to play in the way they do for their clubs, they can deliver the kind of intense and exciting football that makes the Premier League such a compelling competition.
Finally, England has a team where players are performing in the same manner, with the same intensity and positivity, that they show with their clubs every week.
Tactically, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the formation Southgate is using. In Italy in 1990, when England reached the last four, Bobby Robson brought in Mark Wright and played with three central defenders.
That set-up is perfect for giving freedom to attacking full-backs – a role which is itself a long-standing part of English football, with the excellent Kieran Trippier following in the path of overlapping full-backs such as Stuart Pearce and Kenny Sansom.
Another long-standing England strength is aerial power, and centre-half John Stones revealed in the build-up to the Panama game that the team had been working hard on set-pieces, in particular corners.
Both England goals against Tunisia came from Trippier corners, and that route led to the opening goal against Panama when Stones headed in powerfully. England caused havoc from set-pieces all game.
The third goal, a beautiful strike from Jesse Lingard, originated from the kind of swift, incisive approach play and confident finish that fills Premier League highlights reels but has been all too rare a feature of England performances.
As if to emphasis their power in the air, England’s fourth goal was a training ground routine that featured no less than three headers in the box, including Stones’ final nod home.
And then there is Harry Kane, with a hattrick against Panama and five goals in the tournament. What could be more English than a big number nine? The ‘Roy of the Rovers’ comic book hero, leading the line and getting the glory.
What is new about Southgate’s system is the role of the floating forwards – Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, operating behind Kane, an approach well-used by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this season.
Of course, the Premier League itself is a fusion of styles and influences drawn from across Europe and around the world, and Southgate, a regular spectator at games across the country, has drawn on many of them.
“We’ve got some of the best coaches in the world working in our league so there are some fascinating ideas,” he said on the eve of the World Cup.
“It’s a privilege really to watch those games and watch the different formations and systems against a different system. The season has been a great contrast of styles and philosophies,” he said.
The true test for his approach will come in the knockout stages, once the final group match against Belgium is completed.
But at the very least, England fans will be able to cheer on a team that plays a brand of football they recognise and enjoy.