Re­fresh­ing to see South­gate counter con­ven­tional wis­dom


No fans, no goals, no in­ten­sity, no at­mo­sphere. Eng­land’s stale­mate in Croa­tia felt de­fined by what and who was miss­ing.

Per­haps if the World Cup fi­nal­ists had been able to call upon Mario Mandzu­kic, Marcelo Bro­zovic, Ivan Strinic and Sime Vr­saljko, Eng­land would have suf­fered a sec­ond de­feat in three months to 21st-cen­tury ri­vals. In­stead, a home vic­tory against Croa­tia next month would now en­sure Eng­land avoid the ig­nominy of Na­tions League rel­e­ga­tion.

Yet, a draw may have an­other sig­nif­i­cance. This could be a com­pan­ion piece to the 2017 friendly de­feat to Ger­many, and not merely be­cause in­juries de­pleted Eng­land and brought some un­usual choices for each game.

Nine­teen months ago, Gareth South­gate first ex­per­i­mented with a back three. It was a for­ma­tion that helped them con­found ex­pec­ta­tions in the World Cup. It was one whose short­com­ings were ex­ploited by the Croa­t­ians in Moscow.

A strength threat­ened to be­come a weak­ness. A change to 4-3-3 may be a tem­po­rary af­fair, but it high­lighted South­gate’s will­ing­ness to chal­lenge con­ven­tional wis­dom, in­clud­ing his own. With his 3-5-2, he re­alised: “We were get­ting out­num­bered in mid­field. We’ve suf­fered a bit be­cause of the shape.”

The 4-3-3, Harry Kane felt, helped Eng­land match up off the ball. “Without the ball, it meant we were able to get higher and get closer to their mid­field,” South­gate said. Eng­land could also press bet­ter and pen Croa­tia in. If the tac­tics he in­tro­duced against Ger­many owed some­thing to An­to­nio Conte’s Chelsea, a nar­row 4-3-3 with twin No 8s was more rem­i­nis­cent of Mau­r­izio Sarri’s Blues.

It was nev­er­the­less a hy­brid shape. Eric Dier’s ver­sa­til­ity be­came a boon. The Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur man op­er­ated in mid­field when Croa­tia had pos­ses­sion and dropped be­hind when Eng­land had it, al­low­ing the full-backs to push for­ward. “It’s per­fect for Eric to drop in,” South­gate said.

If it was one way of get­ting Dier and Jor­dan Hen­der­son into the same side, the Liver­pool cap­tain had other du­ties.

Kieran Trip­pier was a ben­e­fi­ciary of South­gate’s pref­er­ence for wing-backs, cre­at­ing more chances than any­one else at the World Cup. Yet with Kyle Walker the cho­sen right-back, the rev­e­la­tion in Rus­sia was dropped. Hen­der­son took over as the set-piece spe­cial­ist. The qual­ity of his de­liv­ery was ap­par­ent when Dier and Kane hit the wood­work.

If Eng­land’s in­abil­ity to score high­lighted Mar­cus Rash­ford’s misses, it also showed that a re­liance on dead-ball sit­u­a­tions re­mains. If more ruth­less­ness is re­quired – Rash­ford is yet to score an in­ter­na­tional goal away from home, Kane has no goal in his last six Eng­land games and Ra­heem Ster­ling none in 27 – so is more cre­ativ­ity.

South­gate sug­gested the shift in shape was not a one-off af­fair. “Some of the young play­ers com­ing through are wide play­ers and No 8s that might suit that sys­tem,” he said.

The youngest of all, Jadon San­cho, had an eye-catch­ing cameo. It is easy to en­vis­age Ma­son Mount as one of the No 8s or, in­deed, Phil Fo­den, who ex­celled on his Un­der 21s bow on Thurs­day.

The more im­me­di­ate re­quire­ment is to find some­one to face Spain on Mon­day.

Hen­der­son made his­tory in mi­nor fash­ion, be­com­ing the first Eng­land player to pick up a sus­pen­sion in the Na­tions League. John Stones fol­lowed and if Joe Gomez looks a nat­u­ral re­place­ment for the Manch­ester City man, it is more of a moot point who will fill the mid­field va­cancy. Harry Winks and Nathaniel Chalobah may be the like­li­est can­di­dates, as­sum­ing Ross Barkley keeps his place.

Even the names are a sign this is some­thing dif­fer­ent. The stale­mate ended Eng­land’s run of four straight com­pet­i­tive de­feats. While South­gate said sides should re­quire flex­i­bil­ity, it may yet prove the end of some­thing else, too, if the World Cup sys­tem is dis­carded.


Eng­land’s Ra­heem Ster­ling, left, and Jor­dan Hen­der­son held Ivan Rakitic and Croa­tia to a goal­less draw on Fri­day

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