England battle for survival instead of control as deep-lying issue resurfaces

As イングランド dropped deeper and deeper in the second half, as they succumbed to the same problem holding a lead that had beset them against Colombia and Croatia at the World Cup, the temptation was to wonder if anything had really changed. Why is it that イングランド so often take the lead in big games and so often end up turning in on themselves, as though every battle must be turned into a re-enactment of General Gordon’s defence of Khartoum?

But perhaps that is unfair, or at least to oversimplify the issue. That England failed to hold a lead – again – does not mean that caution was the wrong approach, at least from the outset. Southgate’s strength in this tournament has been devising specific plans for specific games. And for over an hour here it worked. It did for a time seem that England were going to contain イタリア. A substitute brought on slightly earlier, おそらく, and that slow doomed retreat might not have occurred. But then the best-laid plans can go awry: the two players Southgate brought on specifically to take penalties both missed.

Through his England career, Southgate has switched from a back three (インクルード 2018 ワールドカップ) to a back four (インクルード 2018-19 Nations League and Euro qualifiers) to a back three again (インクルード 2020-21 Nations League) to a back four (インクルード 2022 World Cup qualifiers in March). Put loosely, the back three always seemed a little unimaginative going forward, while the back four left England worryingly open defensively. But what might have seemed like indecisiveness has become a virtue: Southgate was left with two formations in which his players were comfortable, two different ways of playing.

Against Germany the back three had been deployed to match up shape for shape, Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw used to intercept Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich high up the pitch, while flooding the central area into which Thomas Müller and Kai Havertz like to drop. イタリア, who went in with an unchanged side in their familiar 4-3-3, posed a different threat. There must have been a temptation to stick with the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid so Mason Mount could try to pressure Jorginho, the metronome at the back of the Italian midfield, but instead Mount, occasionally, drifting in from the left, and Harry Kane, dropping deep, picked him up.

イングランド, でも, were largely content to let Italy dominate possession, and there were long spells of Italy passing the ball back and forth, probing deep in England’s half, trying to find a way through. How well England plugged the gaps was perhaps suggested by the number of speculative long-range shots or ambitious balls over the top Italy attempted.

Often when they broke, Kane found himself outnumbered – and he had little success with his back to goal against Leonardo Bonucci even when he was not. Occasionally, でも, Sterling was able to unleash his dribbling ability and every now and again there was an incisive wave as players got up to support Kane. But whether accepting such sustained pressure is ever an entirely wise course of action is always debatable.

Before this game Italy had attacked 24% more down their left than their right in the tournament, with the full-back – first Leonardo Spinazzola and then, after his achilles injury, Emerson Palmieri, getting forward to join Lorenzo Insigne. Bukayo Saka could have been used to try to pin him in or get behind him, but Southgate explained the thinking of using a wing-back for the job before the game: “Italy cause you a tactical problem‚ which is difficult to resolve with a winger because he ends up defending in our own third of the pitch. We want to keep our attacking players higher up the pitch, which we hope will cause them a problem higher up.”

When Shaw kept the ball in on the left in the second minute, he had the confidence to race forward, knowing there was cover. As England broke, Kyle Walker created space for Trippier to cross with a surge down the outside and Shaw coming round the back of the defence fired it in. As vindications of the attacking merits of the 3-4-3 go, they do not come much better than one wing-back crossing for the other to score.

But as the second half went on, the pressure became increasingly stifling. When the ball went forward, it came straight back. Those sweeping breaks of the early part of the first half became a distant memory. England started giving the ball away, punting it forward rather than using it sensibly. The difference between holding an opponent at arm’s length and inviting pressure is always a fine one. This was not control any more. It was survival. In the end the pressure became too much. Could England have done more to clear the corner? Could Jordan Pickford have got more on the initial save? Perhaps. But the cumulative effect of all that defending was too much.

At which point Southgate, desperate to get England back on the front foot, brought on Saka and reverted to the 4-3-3 that had started against Denmark. On then came Jordan Henderson for Declan Rice. And that did take the game more into the Italian half. Would it have worked from the start? Perhaps, but one of England’s advantages all tournament has been the strength of their bench against weary opponents. On came Jack Grealish, to no avail.

など, with a certain narrative inevitability, to penalties – which in theory should have suited Southgate’s meticulous planning. They did not and England paid for that second-half period when they dropped deeper and deeper and became bad old England again.

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