There were times, Gareth Southgate admitted, when his heart was in dangerously close proximity to his mouth. As England’s back five repeatedly tried to work the ball out of defence, through the thirsty Dutch press, there were moments when a single heavy touch, a single misjudged flick, a single lapse in judgement, would have spelt disaster.
There was one highly hazardous long ball across his own penalty area by Harry Maguire that Memphis Depay came within an inch of intercepting. Jordan Henderson diced with danger time and again. Still, England kept playing. And eventually, as England saw out the game and secured their first away win against Holland for almost 50 years, Southgate was able to relax and enjoy himself.
“They have absolute belief in their ability,” he marvelled afterwards. “They will concede possession sometimes, for sure. But I enjoyed watching them play out there.”
This, in short, is increasingly how modern football is played these days: with flair, with ambition, with possession, with risk, even in defence. It is telling that England’s entire starting back five in Amsterdam on Friday night – Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Joe Gomez, Danny Rose – was drawn from Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool, those clubs and those coaches who most readily embrace the philosophy of putting the ball at risk in order to create.
It meant England took the field with a back five containing four recognised full-backs, with Gomez and Walker playing as wide centre-halves. Gomez has played the position before, but for Walker it was uncharted territory. Although, as Southgate explained: “If you watch City play, that’s where he ends up. He doesn’t maraud forward as he did at Spurs. Their left-back moves wide and he tucks in. For me, it wasn’t a difficult decision.”
There is a logistical element at work here as well. Unlike, say, Fabio Capello, Southgate is determined not to fill his World Cup squad by simply taking two players in every position. “I don’t want to take six centre-backs,” he said. Instead, the likes of Walker, Gomez and Eric Dier will be leaned on to cover that role as well as their primary position.
Above all, though, this is an ideological choice. Any manager can prescribe a sense of adventure in attack. But it is in defence that a team’s identity is most often revealed. And in a way, a far more telling insight into Southgate’s thinking than the inclusion of Walker or Gomez was the omission of the more experienced but less technically-gifted Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill: not just from the side, but from the entire squad. There is still plenty of tinkering to be done between now and England’s opening game in Volgograd on 18 June. But on this point, Southgate has already set out his stall. This England will be bold on the ball, even if it occasionally leads to calamity.
And in a way, we should hardly have been surprised about this. One of the more maligned concepts to have emerged from the FA’s nuclear bunker at St George’s Park in the last few years is that of ‘England DNA’: a style of play that is meant to run through the England side at all levels, from cradle to grave or last-16 exit against a tiny agrarian nation, whichever comes sooner. Much of the criticism it attracted was justified, given its propensity – in the form of sentences like “Defend in an appropriate manner in relation to the state of the game” – to repackage the blinding obvious.
But to watch Walker and Stones knock it about on Friday night, to watch Rose send Quincy Promes for a hot dog, to see England’s women cutting open Germany and France in the recent SheBelieves Cup, to watch England youth teams all through 2017 dancing and showboating their way to global success was to wonder: were they actually onto something here? If the England DNA is ever to be more than fancy squiggles on a Powerpoint presentation, then isn’t this exactly what they had in mind?
Southgate, for all the grumbles about his lack of elite experience and spotless FA yes-man credentials, is actually key to how all this is supposed to work. Indeed, you might even argue that his lack of experience is an influencing factor here. Southgate is perhaps the first England manager since Glenn Hoddle to come into the job without a rigid, calcified idea of how he wants to play the game, without a doctrine to impose. As an adjunct to that, here’s a question for you: when was the last time you saw an England manager who so clearly adores his job as much as Southgate appears to do?
You could, of course, argue that Southgate is benefiting from lower scrutiny, dampened expectations and a young, malleable squad in the way that Steve McClaren – for example – didn’t. And you might argue that there is nothing new at all in wanting to keep the ball and use it decisively. Indeed, the concept of England teams playing the ball out from the back was enshrined as far back as 2002, in the middle eight for England’s World Cup single ‘We’re On The Ball’ by Ant and Dec, in what you have to say were happier times for both: “It’s Neville to Campbell, Campbell to Rio, Rio to Scholesy, Scholesy-Gerrard.”
But at a time when international teams around the world are struggling for cohesion, struggling for relevance, struggling even for a basic identity (and a badly directionless Holland proved as much), these are principles worth restating. It was interesting to hear Southgate using the word “enjoyment” during his press conference on Friday night, given that for generations of England sides past, enjoyment has been an almost entirely alien concept. What’s changed here? Why are we suddenly allowing England players to have fun all of a sudden? How has this happened without someone putting a stop to it?
“We have a different type of player coming through our academies to the past,” Southgate explained. “We want them to express themselves, to play with that freedom. They think about the angles. They’re intelligent footballers. I shouldn’t be inhibiting the way they play.”
Look, let’s not get carried away here. England are still a good rather than a great side. A tally of three goals in five games suggests there are problems, big problems, to be solved further up the pitch. Though the Italy game on Tuesday night will allow Southgate another opportunity to experiment, time is essentially running out. But in this display against the admittedly limited Dutch, England offered something more than simple victory or mere competence. There was a plan. There was a blueprint. There was an identity. You might almost – at the extreme risk of ridicule – call it DNA.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies