England's cautious approach an effective one, but can it stand up to French challenge?

Maybe Gareth Southgate needs to think hard about changing his style when they face the World Champions back here in the Al Bayt stadium on Saturday.
England's cautious approach an effective one, but can it stand up to French challenge?

OFF THE MARK: England's head coach Gareth Southgate, right, greets England's Harry Kane at the end of the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between England and Senegal. Pic: AP Photo/Darko Bandic

IT IS NOT PRETTY, but it is pretty effective.

England's style may divide opinions among pundits and fans out here in Qatar and back at home, but there can be no arguing that playing the way they do has got results and set them up for a mouth-watering, if slightly scary, quarter-final against France.

And churlish as it may be, so soon after England won by a three-goal margin for the third time in four games at this World Cup, but maybe Gareth Southgate needs to think hard about changing his style when they face the world champions back here in the Al Bayt stadium on Saturday.

The tactical approach that Southgate and his sidekick Steve Holland have taken has become clear now. After an 'all-guns blazing' beginning to their World Cup campaign, when England blew away Iran 6-2 in the opening game, the approach has been much more cautious. 

Shut up shop, keep possession, stifle the opposition and then look to hit them on the break. It led to a goalless draw against the USA that won few friends but guaranteed qualification and has been followed by two 3-0 victories over modest opponents Wales and now Senegal.

It may be boring, and certainly not pleasing on the eye, but boy has it worked, and not just for England. The Dutch did pretty much the same on Saturday against the USA, and Louis Van Gaal has been widely criticised back in the Netherlands for betraying Johan Cruyff's legacy of total football in favour of a more pragmatic approach But as Arsene Wenger had pointed out earlier yesterday at his tactical overview of the tournament so far, Van Gaal is the most experienced and successful manager from club football at this tournament, he is a progressive thinker, and it that style works for him, who is to argue?

Certainly not Southgate, whose journey into international management is the polar opposite of Van Gaal's. A modest spell at Middlesbrough hardly prepared him for a role that is as much about managing superstar players and understanding team spirit at tournaments as it is about tactics.

Whisper it quietly, but it is thought Holland does the heavy lifting on the training pitch and with the tactical whiteboard. It was evident from their first day of training out here in Qatar, when Holland gathered the players in a circle at their Al Wakra base and gave them a lengthy talk about how it would be on the pitch. It is off the pitch where Southgate comes into his own, from fronting up to the media to fostering an inclusive spirit not seen for decades, certainly not among the so-called Golden Generation of Gerrard, Beckham, Lampard and Co, which was riven with cliques and club rivalries.

Southgate has got a real unity of purpose from a side that may not yet have the same level of individual talents as those former superstars, but thankfully does not have the egotistical baggage.

Harry Kane is a truly world-class player, yet is as humble as they come, always welcoming and encouraging the younger players around him. And there are some world-class talents starting to emerge. Jude Bellingham put in another man-of-the-match performance, despite what the sponsors thought (again) and Phil Foden was not far behind. 

It was fitting that those two worked hardest to set up Kane for the second goal, and his first of this tournament, with brilliantly effective and unselfish play on the stroke of half-time. Bellingham broke up a Senegal attack just outside England's penalty area, drove into the centre-circle to release Foden, whose only thought was to play in Kane, thus far without a goal in the tournament. 

Kane's finish was emphatic and the way the team celebrated with him suggested they were all pleased to help him get off the mark, having benefitted from his own unselfish play to create goals and chancres for his team-mates throughout.

It was Kane who started the move from which Bellingham crossed for Jordan Henderson to open the scoring, and the two combined again when Bukayo Saka scored the third. So, Southgate should have no concerns about England's attacking abilities, especially when he is able to send on substitutes of the quality of Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish.

But France's attack is pretty tasty too, perhaps the best of all out here in Qatar. Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele bomb down the wings at terrifying speed, Olivier Giroud is always there to knock in goals and Antione Griezmann floats among them as a constant threat.

Despite the three goalless sheets so far, England's defence still makes mistakes, collectively and individually, and there were enough slips against Senegal to suggest Southgate should have some concerns, especially when the world's most in-form striker Mbappe will be ready to pounce on any error.

Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker all gave away possession cheaply before Henderson settled nerves with the opening goal. England got away with it because Senegal, shorn of the injured Sadio Mane, lack a top-class finisher.

Giving up cheap chances is part and parcel of the risk v reward element of playing out from the back and keeping the ball away from your opponents. Older readers may recall how Liverpool used to do it brilliantly in the away legs of European Cup ties, when they ruled supreme. But they had superb ball-playing centre-backs in Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, and Stones and Maguire are not at those levels.

Yet you need a bit of luck to win tournaments, and Southgate and his men know that, having gone so close in Russia four years ago and again at the Euro 2020 last summer, when the title of European Champions was decided by the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.

So, Southgate has this dilemma over the coming days – stick with a winning formula, and hope they can withstand Mbappe and Co, or switch style again and find a different gameplan to see off the French.

Whatever he does, it will be perhaps the biggest call of his career so far.

More in this section

Sport Push Notifications

By clicking on 'Sign Up' you will be the first to know about our latest and best sporting content on this browser.

Sign Up

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

Execution Time: 0.211 s