Gareth Southgate Can Help England Rebuild from the Back

Robert O'Connor@@hoovesonfireContributing Football WriterNovember 16, 2016

Southgate has had a strong start as England manager.
Southgate has had a strong start as England manager.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

There was a moment midway through the first half of England's 3-0 win against Scotland at Wembley Stadium on Friday when Joe Hart received the ball to his feet, looked at his options and chose to ignore each of his centre-backs who were beckoning to receive it from him, instead taking a touch and thundering it upfield into the opposition half.

It was a frustrated swipe from the on-loan Torino goalkeeper, one that seemed to be saying: "Enough; enough dallying at the back, enough heart-in-mouth moments in defence."

John Stones and Gary Cahill had more than once in those first 20 minutes almost danced themselves into a mess trying to pass and move their way out of defence; and the England 'keeper was in no mood to let any concerns about the way his Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, might have viewed a moment of artless distribution cloud his decision-making.

It was difficult not to spare some sympathy for Hart. It was only three-and-a-half months ago that he was uprooted from a club where he had been a stable and secure No. 1 and told to find a new homeall on the strength of some preconceptions about his reluctance to play with the ball at his feet.

In front of him in the England team, Stones is the player Guardiola has sought to build his ball-playing City defence around. Yet, for all the composure the former Everton defender shows in playing out from the back, he is still to eliminate from his game the doubts that he instils when overplaying and running into trouble.

Stones is not yet the bastion of reliability he will need to become to be thought of as one of the world's best, and this seemed to trouble Hart at Wembley.

On the face of things, this England team should be entering a period where there is a real consensus about how to handle the ball in their own third. If the goalkeeper looked unconvinced about his own role in the system against Scotland, then it was only because the back four had failed to convince with their execution.

England manager-elect Gareth Southgate needs to know that, if he should choose to enforce a possession-based game between his defence and midfield—and after Friday there is every evidence this is how he sees the team working under his stewardship—his players have the confidence in each other to carry it out.

In theory at least, this shouldn't be a problem. So often in the past the job of the England manager has been to pull together players into systems that differ from what players are used to at club level, which accounts for a lot of the drop-off between domestic performances and those in the national-team shirt.

It's a problem that cuts across international football but is especially and increasingly acute in England on account of the multinational make-up of the Premier League, which has meant there is less and less that is stylistically "English" about football here.

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Now, though, England have a chance to build a side that is up to date with those in-vogue tactical trends, namely that play should begin from a defence—and goalkeeper—that are capable and confident in moving the ball along the ground.

Cahill talked after the Scotland game about the way different managers at Chelsea have encouraged him and his colleagues to play out from the back over the previous five years. Now, under Antonio Conte, he is being asked to get used to a new system, if not exactly a new mentality for playing within it.

Much of Chelsea's renewed success with a three-man central defence is owed to the quick release of the full-backs-come-wingers Victor Moses and Marcus Alonso, and Cahill has adapted well.

Against Scotland, the brief didn't include such a rapid turnaround from back to front as has been seen at Stamford Bridge since Conte changed the formation in September, but the principles of neat, tight balls out from the back remained the same.

Out wide with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, England benefited from the Tottenham Hotspur connection at either full-back position. The quick press out of possession, the willingness to receive from central positions and the instinct to give and receive high up the pitch all dovetail neatly with the preferences of the man who is likely be their new national manager.

England cruised against Scotland.
England cruised against Scotland.Matt Dunham/Associated Press/Associated Press

This is a rare moment of potential for England. 

Notwithstanding Hart's well-publicised difficulties in the summer—his international performances suggest he is delivering on his intention to overcome these issues—there's a group of players available who are being primed to play a very defined, very continental style of football at club level by some of Europe's brightest coaches.

There now seems to be an England manager who is of common mind with those coaches. That a credible draw against the 2010 World Cup winners was earned on Tuesday by sticking to these principles is a further nod to this side's capacity to stand up and be competitive against the likes of Spain.

"When the time's right to play out from the back, we'll play out from the back," Cahill said after the win over Scotland, per the Guardian. "I think that's something maybe we can look at. You don't have to be fixated with one style or another."

This latter remark offers an interesting caveat, one that poses a question of how far Southgate, and more broadly, the Football Association will be prepared to fully commit to this new way of playing.

The FA's England DNA plan talks, in sometimes less-than-convincing rhetoric, about installing a behaviour in players that represents the national team rather than a style. This leaves the whole thing open to interpretation and in some sense returns England to the same kind of inconsistent planning that caused the plan to be drawn up in the first place.

Certainly Cahill's expectation that the management isn't wedded to pass and move from the back suggests that whatever "behaviours" are being promoted within the setup, they aren't being done so with the kind of single-mindedness that Guardiola has shown in his time in England.

It's worth remembering that in July the FA looked at its DNA plan, which promotes a possession-based game from the youth ranks through to the senior team, and deduced that the best man for the job was a manager with a reputation for getting the ball forward as quickly and directly as possible.

Sam Allardyce always bridled at the use of the term "long ball," but he was by his own admission a proponent of moving the ball down the pitch quickly and looking to occupy opposition defences with strength.

In Southgate, the FA has more than just their company man, they have a coach who was comfortable on the ball and looked to use it in defence during his playing days. He has the tools at his disposal to bring that same ethic to the England setup as manager.


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