Why Gareth Southgate’s England look more defensively vulnerable than ever – The Athletic

By Liam Tharme6h ago

Gareth Southgate is honest and ambitious. He thinks England can win Euro 2024.

It makes sense, then, that England prepare with March friendlies against two of the best teams in the world: Brazil and Belgium. While they have undergone recent managerial changes, and are undertaking squad evolutions, both have been ranked number one in the world during Southgate’s tenure.

“We’ll be tested in every aspect of our game,” said the England manager before Saturday’s Brazil friendly.

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Those tests were compounded by the absences of first-choice No 9 Harry Kane and winger Bukayo Saka, cornerstones of England’s attack. Factor in they were facing a Brazil side in their first game under Dorival Junior, with five debutants in their starting XI, and neither side was in their final form.

But if the critique of Southgate is that, historically at least, he has been too conservative against better opposition, then that did not apply against Brazil. Even without Kane, England played through Brazil’s pressure, camping in their half, and pressed aggressively. England matched Brazil for shots (14) and slightly edged possession.

In fact, England have matched Brazil in the past few years. The two nations exited the 2022 World Cup at the same stage, knocked out in the quarter-finals by a 2018 finalist (England by France, Brazil by Croatia). Both countries lost a major continental tournament final on home soil in 2021, too. In November, England replaced Brazil as the third-best team in FIFA’s rankings.

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The biggest praise from Brazil head coach Dorival Junior pre-match was that “these players are moving away from what was known as the traditional way England teams played for years and years. These days they have much more possession, a lot more transitions and breakthrough moves”.

Yet it was Brazil, not England, who were devastating in transition and with “breakthrough moves” at Wembley. It brought England their first defeat since France knocked them out of the 2022 World Cup; the first defeat at Wembley since 2020 (21 games ago, against Denmark in the UEFA Nations League). The biggest concern for Southgate was not that England lost, but how they lost.

England gave up seven Opta-defined ‘big chances’ (and only had one themselves).

For context, that is the most in a game under Southgate and just the third time they have conceded five or more — after six away to France in a 2017 friendly and five away to Netherlands in the 2019 UEFA Nations League semi-finals. England conceded more big chances against Brazil on Saturday than they did in their five 2022 World Cup games (six) and seven Euro 2020 games (five).

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Part of the risk came with the strategy.

“Our pressure had to be excellent, and it was,” said Southgate. England were brave to press Brazil high, going man for man in midfield against a technically excellent trio of Bruno Guimaraes, Lucas Paqueta and Joao Gomes.

They started pressing from a 4-4-2, with No 10 Jude Bellingham alongside Ollie Watkins to cover Guimaraes, who was playing as a lone No 6 (No 5 in South American football) in a 4-3-3.

Wingers Anthony Gordon and Phil Foden made aggressive sprints to close down Brazil’s full-backs.

Declan Rice had a split role, covering the advanced Paqueta, but ready to jump upfield when an England forward stepped to press.

England regularly had all their outfielders in Brazil’s half. That left space to play in behind, which Paqueta exploited on numerous occasions with a wonderful array of passes.

England’s pressing shape in the first half, as viewed from the press box. Note the right-sided players locking on, John Stones on the edge of the final third, and Kyle Walker’s body positioning next to Vinicius Junior — ready to race.

Then, when Brazil switched to a double pivot, England stepped up the press, with Rice and Conor Gallagher locking on.

The knock-on effect was at centre-back, where Harry Maguire or John Stones had to track No 9 Rodrygo.

For the first hour, it worked.

Brazil struggled to build up the play, though goalkeeper Bento refused to play long. It created an attritional game in midfield, with 30 fouls combined — 11 by England and 19 by Brazil.

England having more of the ball was a good thing, but increased the opportunity for Brazil to hit them quickly on the break. Southgate was complimentary afterwards of the opposition’s “three dangerous forwards, good technical players in midfield. You know the concentration and focus against forwards of that quality has to be perfect to stop them having the chances”.

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Stopping chances was the key point.

For this, Kyle Walker has been essential. At Euro 2020, Southgate played Walker alongside Maguire and Stones in a 3-4-3. At the 2022 World Cup, England played a 4-3-3 but Southgate used Walker as a third centre-back in the build-up in knockout games against France and Senegal — it gave cover and recovery pace to defend against fast and dangerous left-wingers in Kylian Mbappe and Ismaila Sarr.

Walker’s injury inside 20 minutes on Saturday came from an error defending the exact move he was in place to stop. More than that, it shows how acclimated England are to attacking with Kane. The Brazil counter-attack originates from an under-hit Ben Chilwell cross. His decision to cross is not the optimal one, with Watkins the only realistic target, a settled Brazil back-four and three team-mates nearby.

Brazil clear and Paqueta lands on the loose ball.

Gallagher is the closest England midfielder, but gets to Paqueta too slowly, then fails to tackle him or put him off. Paqueta duly releases left-winger Vinicius Junior inside Walker.

Vinicius Jr races through, and pokes past Jordan Pickford, but the finish is tame and Walker can recover to intercept it before it crosses the line.

There was a similar counter-attack later in the half. Bellingham’s attempted reverse pass to Chilwell was intercepted. England have bodies around the ball but the counter-press is loose, allowing Paqueta and Guimaraes to combine and escape.

Paqueta can find Vinicius Jr, positioned in a pocket of space between England’s defence and midfield.

In two touches, Vinicius Jr controls with his left foot then releases Raphinha with his right — another excellent pass, with the outside of his boot.

England scramble to get bodies behind the ball and just about defend it. The move crescendos to a cutback that Paqueta curls against the post.

There are few, if any teams in the world, that boast a forward line with comparable pace, individual quality and ball-carrying threat as Brazil’s. Even so, Southgate was a little too accepting of England’s openness.

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“There were a couple of great quality passes, one-twos, played in behind,” he said. “But you’re talking about players in that attacking third at the very highest level of the game. You are going to have moments where your goalkeeper has to make a save, or your defenders have to pull off an outstanding block.”

As good as England’s press was, the physical repercussions of defending this way showed late in the game, when Brazil had even more space to exploit. That was exacerbated by Southgate’s substitutions, which, while entirely necessary in a friendly, opened up the game at both ends.

Given the volume of counter-attack chances Brazil had, it is unsurprising that their winning goal stemmed from a break.

Once more, the move starts from settled England possession with a poor decision to put the ball at risk and a bad execution of the intended pass. This time, Rice, who had dropped between centre-backs Lewis Dunk and Stones, tried to find substitute left-back Joe Gomez in behind.

Brazil right-back and captain Danilo headed clear, Marcus Rashford missed a header to keep the attack alive, then Kobbie Mainoo missed a tackle (or foul) on Savio (also known as Savinho) as he dribbled away.

Rashford’s recovery did enough to force a bad pass inside, only for Dunk to mistime a headed pass into Foden — Andreas Pereira intercepted and immediately released Vinicius Jr.

Pickford saved his shot one-on-one, but Endrick followed up to tap in the rebound — the youngest male to score a senior international goal at Wembley (aged 17 years and 246 days).

Southgate’s reflections that it was a game lost in a single, decisive moment, are deliberately selective. The entire point of England playing teams of this quality is that they learn how to play against them. The only consolation is that it is better this happens now than in the summer.

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(Top photo: MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Liam Tharme is one of The Athletic’s Football Tactics Writers, primarily covering Premier League and European football. Prior to joining, he studied for degrees in Football Coaching & Management at UCFB Wembley (Undergraduate), and Sports Performance Analysis at the University of Chichester (Postgraduate). Hailing from Cambridge, Liam spent last season as an academy Performance Analyst at a Premier League club, and will look to deliver detailed technical, tactical, and data-informed analysis. Follow Liam on Twitter @LiamTharmeCoach

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