South­gate eyes re­ward from risky Hod­dle ploy

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - THE TITLE - By Rob Draper

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

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