Nobody is saying England are about to win the World Cup after beating The Netherlands 1-0 in Amsterdam on Friday night. Far from it. This might well be the worst Dutch side in the last two decades at least given they have failed to qualify for two tournaments in succession. But still they provided useful opposition for Gareth Southgate as he plots a course to take care of Tunisia, Panama and Belgium in two months at World Cup 2018.
It might be worth playing down the result but it’s not worth playing down the performance or even the game plan. This is a new England, a different England and one which should give plenty of encouragement to those who want their national team to play attractive football with a maximum chance of success.
Expectations have been diminished and the nation is perhaps as out of love with the national team as it’s ever been but Southgate has painstakingly restored confidence in the squad following the Euro 2016 blowout against Iceland.
He may not have been the unanimous choice to lead the team when Sam Allardyce’s brief tenure ended in humiliation but he has proven to be the right one. Southgate is far, far more suited to the much-vaunted England DNA blueprint that is preached around St George’s Park.
The DNA document could be summarised as win the ball back quickly, use possession wisely, look for the right moment to penetrate. It draws plenty from the work done by Spain and Germany the last decade.
Those countries showed the world winning football between 2008 and 2014 with a big focus on possession. Pep Guardiola had a huge influence on both of those generations, even if he was working as a club coach and not an international one.
Spain under Vicente del Bosque won two tournaments in a row taking plenty of cues from Pep’s work at Barcelona. Individuals such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and David Villa all starred at one time or another for both club and country during those glory days. The Barca boys always called the shots how football would be played in the national team.
Guardiola might only have been in Germany for one season by the time Joachim Low won the World Cup but the Bundestrainer was not too proud to seek to emulate what was happening at Bayern during Pep’s time there. Bayern provided a bedrock for German success in Brazil with Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze all proving to be key assets en route to World Cup glory. Low’s attempt to utilise Lahm as a central midfielder was a strategy straight out of the Guardiola playbook.
Teams like Spain and Germany traditionally go into matches expecting to dominate the ball and space and opponents simply seek to duck and cover. England usually find themselves in that category too but are generally too good for the weak teams but too weak for the good ones. The England DNA plan and Southgate’s adherence to it is a step in the right direction.
Guardiola has brought a richness in the quality of football in both Spain and Germany as a result of working there. And judging by the evidence of Southgate’s work on Friday night, England are heading in the same direction thanks in part to Pep and his revolutionary work at Manchester City.
He decided to use Kyle Walker in a nominal centre back position having watched how he plays for Pep at City. Alongside Walker was John Stones and further forward was Raheem Sterling. City don’t have enough English players that Southgate can build a core among them but three is a start. And throughout the team he is using players who are well-accustomed to possession heavy football at their clubs. Players from Liverpool and Tottenham in particular would have little trouble adapting to this style of play required of them in national colours.
“I think we try to bring all the attributes and what we learn under Pep into the England squad, and are open to learn from Gareth as well,” Stones said. “It stands us in good stead.
“We work hard on the training pitch under Pep, learn a lot of things, different styles of play, how to play against different formations. I think it gives you that head start coming into England, and we can share our ideas as well.”
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Guardiola coached the league champions in the countries which won the last two World Cups. It is more than coincidence. He provides a template for national team managers to tweak if they are seeking to learn. And Southgate certainly is.
He’s about to coach City to a title here but England have a long way to go if they are to add to the Pep-influenced pattern. Indeed, it will probably end here. But Guardiola will nonetheless leave a positive mark and higher standards that Southgate and whoever comes after him can benefit from.