If you looked at Gareth Southgate’s time in charge of England on paper, you’d think he’s set to go down in history as one of the all-time greats.
Under Southgate, England reached the semi-final at the 2018 World Cup. They came third in the UEFA Nations League. They recently knocked off Belgium, picking up a 2-1 win over the number one ranked side in the world.
The problem is that while England have been doing all that, they’ve actually been thoroughly uninspiring.
Creativity is almost non-existant and England seem to labour their way through every opponent in their path and gamble that their natural ability will be enough to get them over the line.
Against Belgium, Southgate lined up in a 3-4-3 which included no less than seven defensive players. There were three right-backs in the starting lineup, no left-backs in the squad and the most creative midfielder was Jordan Henderson.
Henderson is an impressive passer of the ball, but even the Liverpool captain will admit that he doesn’t offer up the defence-splitting passes of an elite creator. That’s not his game. That’s not what he does.
The lack of creativity was clear to see against Belgium. England looked lost for a large part of the game and netted their goals through a criminally soft penalty and a lucky deflection. Without real fortune on their side, this England team would have lost that game – especially when you consider Yannick Carrasco should have easily bagged a hat-trick.
Rejecting the chance to play with a creative midfielder is nothing new to Southgate. Back in September’s 0-0 draw with Denmark, his midfield two consisted of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, and we all know about his apparent determination to avoid turning to Jack Grealish for help.
However, even when those creative players do play, England still look stale.
May’s 1-0 win over Iceland saw James Ward-Prowse and Phil Foden play in midfield behind the trio of Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane. That’s a team who should be able to pick off Iceland with ease, yet why did it look so uncomfortable?
It took a 91st-minute penalty for Sterling to break the deadlock, which isn’t good enough from a side who were billed as future giants of the international game after 2018.
It almost feels as though England are still riding the high of their run to the World Cup semi-final. Only top sides reach that stage, but let’s not pretend like there wasn’t more than a little good fortune about that run.
England needed a 91st-minute goal from Harry Kane to sneak past Tunisia. They needed penalties to beat Colombia, and after deservedly beating Sweden, they were humbled by both Croatia and Belgium in a tournament which saw them develop a concerning reliance on set-pieces and the sheer size of the target that is Harry Maguire’s head.
Now, let’s give credit where credit’s due. Against Belgium, a tactical tweak at half time saw Southgate instruct his side to take up a higher defensive line which stifled the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. Fair play.
However, is it too much to ask to actually enjoy watching an England game for once? To want to watch England tap into the well of creativity at their disposal instead of simply winning a war of attrition?
For England to truly be considered as one of the world’s top sides, they need to actually go out and beat the competition. If you’re simply sitting in a low block and stumbling upon a goal or two, you’re not dominating like the results sheet might suggest.
England have a long way to go before they’re back on top of the football mountain, and with Southgate’s reluctance to unlock the shackles, there have to be questions over whether he’s the man to lead the Three Lions forward.