Gareth Southgate's failed attacking experiment shows balance is key to England success

By Sean Walsh
Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling all started for England
Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling all started for England / Julian Finney/GettyImages

When England fans saw the lineup Gareth Southgate had picked for the Three Lions' World Cup qualifier against Hungary on Tuesday, there seemed to be one collective brainwave among the population - 'wow, that's really attack-minded'.

Declan Rice would be playing in a one-man pivot behind the extraordinary attacking talent of Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane - three Ballon d'Or nominations this year between them, while the remaining two cost Manchester City a combined £150m.

Southgate's England have become known on the pitch for their pragmatism and street-smarts beyond their young years, rather than their attacking exuberance. ITV commentator Sam Matterface referenced early into the game that the criticisms of the national team at Euro 2020 seemed harsh in hindsight because of how close they came to winning the tournament, while Southgate said pre-match that every selection he makes seems criminal some way or another.

Even after a nearly-lifeless group stage, Southgate stuck to his guns and kept England playing safely. It got them to the final, but after Italy were given the freedom to get back into the game, ultimately cost them the trophy.

Since that dark day at Wembley, Southgate has been tinkering to find another way for England to evolve, to ensure they head to the 2022 World Cup as one of the rightful favourites.

His most fun experiment came on Saturday, deploying Foden in a 'quarterback' role against Andorra, letting him dictate play from deep in order to unlock a deep block.

Phil Foden
Foden excelled against Andorra but found life tougher against Hungary / Julian Finney/GettyImages

That win was followed by this drab 1-1 draw at home to Hungary, despite the embarrassment of riches England's attack boasted.

Southgate is a principled man, as demonstrated by his piece for The Players' Tribune earlier this year. He's a good kind of stubborn and yet also willing to learn and change for the better, which is why this tactical change felt so out of character and not in-keeping with what his England side are about.

This crop of current England players is insanely talented, particularly in attacking areas, we all know that. There's a really good chance that they will reach more finals together over the next decade, perhaps even win a major tournament. But you don't have to play all of your hands at once.

It wouldn't be irrational to suggest that it's as hard to fit Grealish, Mount and Foden in the same team as it was with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. The problem now is you have to build around three players - none of whom are the best in the team - rather than two.

It took Southgate a long time to trust Grealish - remember when people were saying that Mount was the boss' son because he kept getting the nod? The former Aston Villa captain excelled in this England setup from the bench, particularly at Euro 2020, but there's been little to suggest he is deserving of a place in the starting XI.

Jack Grealish, Gareth Southgate, Bukayo Saka
Southgate withdrew Grealish after an hour / Julian Finney/GettyImages

It's not all their fault, obviously. There's only a certain number of attack-minded players an international manager can get the best out of in the short time he sees them.

The good news is there's still over a year to go for Southgate to iron out these kinks and flaws, to perfect a winning machine and settle on a preferred pool of players as he did for the Euros. The bad news is we might not be able to enjoy watching the process develop.

You're still thinking about the bad news, aren't you?