If Kosovo manager Bernard Challandes’ claim that England are “no doubt the best team in the world” seemed a little exaggerated in the moment, there are many of his loftier counterparts who have long believed Gareth Southgate’s side are streaks ahead of everyone in one key area.
That, specifically, is out wide. One top international manager recently spent a game marvelling at the blinding movement of England’s forwards, describing it as “the envy” of many.
There are an abundance of riches in this area. England are overloaded with players so good at creating overloads, and thereby a lot of havoc for opposition defences.
Few countries can match this. So, many managers would love it – and now must figure out a way to stop it. For some time to come.
That all points to how this is more than just a strength unique to this English squad, but one almost unique to English football culture. It certainly isn’t exaggerated to say it could be becoming the country’s version of Spain’s polished passing midfielders, Uruguay’s rugged centre-halves or Germany’s technical universalists; a hallmark of the national coaching structure.
It is definitely a planned product of that coaching structure, as Southgate explained in the aftermath of England’s 4-0 win in Pristina.
“Yes, I think if you went back, probably 15 years or so, and talked to people in football development, they’d have talked about needing to develop wingers and needing to develop defenders who were comfortable on the ball,” the manager said.
While many coaches would say this is something greatly set up by the kids’ “cage culture” in many parts of the country – particularly south London, where it has effectively replaced street football – it has then been institutionally developed and honed by a concentration on one-on-one training, and specialism in this area.
This is something that has been missing in similarly big coaching cultures like Germany, where training is mainly unopposed and it’s mostly pass and move. This is precisely why so many Bundesliga clubs have so prioritised this new generation of English talent – most notably, Sancho.
It is now the country’s most identifiable football quality.
And such a distinctive shift in the coaching structure has naturally led to a shift in the England team. You don’t even have to go back as far as 15 years for that. You can look to 16 months ago, and the World Cup.
The extent of the change in the side over this qualifying campaign is actually under-appreciated, but becomes immediately apparent when you look back to the starting line-up from the semi-final against Croatia.
There’s first of all the fact that half of those outfield players – Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young and to a lesser extent Kyle Walker and Kieran Tripper – can’t really get in the team any more. There’s secondly the shape and movement of that team.
The approach for that Croatia match just felt so much more tactically rigid, with that partly due to Southgate’s necessarily pragmatic 3-5-2 formation to cover gaps in the squad’s qualities. It was a tactical template almost placed on the team, rather than a natural extension from their natural abilities.
Southgate no longer looks at it like that. Instead of a formation primarily applied to minimise the squad’s weaknesses, he is now confident enough to apply one that maximises its strengths. This is why he is now set on a 4-3-3, and has admitted that is due to the abundance of wide players. Southgate is now very much playing to the team’s – and football culture’s – greatest strength. It makes complete sense.
The great wonder remains whether it can sufficiently offset the country’s great weakness, that itself is another product of that coaching culture: the lack of a world-class midfield passer.
“There aren’t lots of those players who can play like [Frenkkie] De Jong or Jorginho, someone who can control and pivot,” Southgate explained. “A lot of academies convert defenders into that and it means that if I looked around junior teams, there are lots of clear examples of those types of players, so that’s an interesting challenge, if you like, for coach education in our country, I think. Because in other parts of the world that player is key to everything, really.”
All of this does mean that England are still likely to cede control in the biggest games, against the biggest teams.
The true difference now, however, is that they have an abundance of players who revel in those rare moments when a game goes out of control. They have so many wide forwards who are brilliant in transition, or breaks.
It is precisely why Southgate’s side have racked up such a huge scoring record, even though they have only infrequently been in convincing command of games. It is because they have these players who can shred you in an instant, who so marvellously move together. Extended periods of possession can be undone in an instant, if you suddenly have Sterling – or Sancho, or Hudson-Odoi, or Rashford – bearing down on goal at full pelt.
That will give them a chance in the majority of matches, no matter how they’re actually performing. It is why so many other managers are envious of it. It is something now almost unique to England, their new hallmark, but stamped on the side.