Chris Smalling feels seriously hard done by. The 28-year-old centre-half played 3,256 minutes for Manchester United this term, outperformed his pricier teammate Eric Bailly, scored four goals even, including the equaliser at Selhurst Park, but didn’t find a place in Gareth Southgate’s 23-man England squad for the World Cup.
Southgate believes in straight talking. While announcing the World Cup squad, he explained why Smalling never had a chance. “Chris is a man I respect a great deal. But I think we made that decision in November and I haven’t seen any reason to change the thinking on that. We pick on how a player fits our system.”
Smalling, according to Southgate, can’t play out from the back, which became his bugbear. Harry Maguire of Leicester City has been chosen instead, as also Smalling’s central defensive partner at the club, Phil Jones. The latter can be messy at times, as his handling of Eden Hazard in the FA Cup final would attest. But Jones finished the season with a pass success percentage of 91.2 in 29 matches compared to Smalling’s 88.8 in 49 appearances (source, whoscored.com). The England management ignored the fact that Smalling had won more aerials than both Jones and Maguire. Southgate’s thought process put creativity at the forefront.
A change in philosophy
From a neutral’s perspective, it’s a very pleasing change in philosophy. For the first time since Glenn Hoddle left the dugout in 1999, an England manager is stressing upon creativity and picking players to change the national team’s ‘hurly-burly’ on-pitch image. Southgate, however, is not working in isolation.
As England U-17 coach Steve Cooper pointed out during last year’s colts’ World Cup in India, St George’s Park – Football Association’s home – has prioritised ‘winning with style’ for all age groups. The kids have been thriving on it. England won the U-20 and U-17 World Cups, and also the European U-19 title, last year. Their football had been bewitching at times.
By Southgate’s own admission, the Three Lions are not going to Russia as favourites. Far from it. England was knocked out at the group stage in the last World Cup and suffered a humiliating exit from the 2016 Euros after going down to Iceland, and the focus this time is more on establishing a recognisable style of play. “We are trying to change the style of play. We have our young players developing with better technical ability with the ball. We know these players and we believe that, in the long term, some of them can be world-class players,” the England manager recently told ESPN. His team will go to Russia with an eye to becoming title contenders four years hence.
3-4-3, basically a tweak of 3-5-2, is going to be the prevalent formation in this World Cup and Southgate’s squad reflects his philosophy — building from the back and quality on the ball. Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford, the two senior goalkeepers — Burnley’s Nick Pope is the third-choice — had save percentages of 68 and 67.1 respectively in the Premier League last season. But both were impressive with their distribution. Pep Guardiola’s Ederson experiment at Manchester City has even redefined goalkeeping.
Back to the 3-4-3 formation, and it will see the two side-backs cut inside, when the team is going forward. Both Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier on the right, and Danny Rose on the left, are pretty adept at doing that. Midfielders Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson will cover the vacant spaces. Fabian Delph will operate box-to-box. 3-4-3 often becomes 5-3-2 or 4-4-1-1 when the team is defending. The likes of Walker, Trippier, John Stones and Maguire have the versatility to play centrally also.
Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy are the two conventional centre-forwards, but in Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, England have pace and quality on the ball. Add Jesse Lingard to the mix and Southgate’s team can offer decent cutting edge. Even Ashley Young, who rejuvenated his career at the age of 32, can create, as he still sees himself as a natural winger rather than a converted left-back.
The change in England’s playing style is a trickle-down effect of club football. Arsene Wenger had set the ball rolling at Arsenal at the turn of the century and now Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have been wooing the fans and experts with their easy-on-the-eye football. Winning without wowing is no longer considered good enough. English football has benefited immensely by welcoming the new-generation super managers.
Guardiola’s City finished the league with 100 points, scoring 106 goals. Klopp’s Liverpool and Pochettino’s Spurs bagged 84 and 74 goals respectively. They heralded the winds of change and inspired young English managers like Southgate. For ‘new’ England, this World Cup could be the start of a journey towards the beautiful game and achievements following 52 years of hurt.