Southgate eyes reward from risky Hoddle ploy
ENGLAND will go back to the future tonight in Lithuania.
It is 11 years ago, almost to the day, that they have started with a back three in a qualifying game.
Though Gareth Southgate has toyed with the idea, playing with it in the friendly against Germany earlier last March and reverting to the system last Thursday late on against Slovenia, it is not since Steve McClaren took the plunge in a European Championship qualifier against Croatia in October 2006 that England started a triumvirate of defenders.
It didn’t end well: there was a Gary Neville own goal, a 2-0 defeat and recriminations all around as Slaven Bilic’s Croatia team laid the foundations of a campaign which would deny England qualification, end McClaren’s reign and usher in this current era of calamitous failure. Unsurprisingly, they never tried it again.
But, as Glenn Hoddle has said, it was an option that served England well between 1996 and 1998. The famous 0-0 draw in Italy, which earned qualification for World Cup ’98, the 20th anniversary of which is this week, was a performance of maturity and tactical awareness rarely seen before or since from an England team. There were many heroes that night in Rome but one man stood out in defence: Southgate.
Thursday night has possibly accelerated a change which Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland contemplated last summer as they sat down to plan these qualification games last summer in a restaurant in Kielce, Poland. Ostensibly there to watch the Under-21 team, they took the opportunity for a working lunch to discuss the England senior team’s problem.
Four-four-two might have won the World Cup in 1966 but is had done precious little for England since; nor has the 4-2-3-1 formation into which it has evolved. The game against Slovenia laid bare the issue England have now for some time. They struggle to break down teams that sit deep against them. That was true at Euro 2016 and has been evident in qualifying against Slovenia, Slovakia (again) and Malta.
A change of formation helped Hoddle’s England and Southgate as a player. Now as manager he is hoping for something similar. ‘We can connect the ball better,’ he said. ‘It gives us more stability in transition. I think the passing angles [are better]. We’ve played our best possession football when we’ve played that way in the games up to now.
‘In the qualification games we wanted an extra attacking player on the field, but I’m not certain we’ve created more chances by doing that. So this is a good opportunity to do that.’
CHANGES: Gareth Southgate will go with three centre-backs