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This is Southgate's England: If you wanted Grealish, Sancho and swashbuckling football then you're going to be sorely disappointed

5:06 pm AEST 16/6/21
Jack Grealish Jadon Sancho Gareth Southgate England GFX
Gareth Southgate navigated his way past Croatia with an abundance of caution and demonstrated that he will not let his attackers off the leash

In many ways England and Gareth Southgate got off to the perfect start to Euro 2020 - winning their opening game for the first time in 10 attempts, battling through the heat at Wembley, enacting a clear game-plan, restricting Croatia to a 0.02 expected goals [xG], and the most controversial selections from Kalvin Phillips to Raheem Sterling excelling.

The congratulatory tone of post-match analysis is deserved but should come with a note of caution. Croatia were dreadful, offering nothing in attack and seemingly incapable of progressing the ball through the lines.

Sunday’s opener may well turn out to be England’s easiest game of the group and consequently Southgate’s cautious football, slow performance, and narrow win isn’t necessarily proof of his team’s self-assurance.

There’s certainly no need to be overly negative, of course, but equally it would be naive to feel emboldened by a single 90 minutes against opponents who put in arguably the worst performance of the competition so far.

There is cautious optimism to be found in the intensity of England’s pressing at the start of each half, in the excellent performance of Phillips – whose runs beyond Harry Kane into the right channel were a constant threat and led directly to the goal – and in the link-up play between Mason Mount and Sterling, a persistent feature that played out for the winner.

The only secure and lasting conclusion to be drawn from the game is the overall tactical direction England will take in this tournament and, for better or worse, here was decisive evidence Southgate will not embrace attacking football; will not unleash the nation’s best young forwards and play in the gung-ho system so many fans have longed for.

On the eve of the tournament a small schism opened between those supporting the manager’s conservative instincts and those wishing a more progressive coach was in charge to crowbar Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, and Mount into the same team (with two of these riskily operating as the ‘free eights’ in midfield).

Despite lining up in a 4-3-3 formation England’s performance against Croatia emphatically ended any hopes Southgate would morph into that kind of manager; a Champions League winning left-back was on the bench in the shape of Ben Chilwell as Kieran Trippier awkwardly slotted in on the wrong side and Sterling was preferred to the more exciting Grealish or Sancho.

Those aren’t the choices of a manager willing to reinvent England as Europe’s entertainers. Instead a slow-burn tournament awaits, one defined – no matter how far England go – by relatively cautious football that is frankly a bit of a slog to watch.

That is probably the necessary outcome of exhausted players working tirelessly through the summer heat, and more importantly may well be the most effective means of going deep in the tournament.

International football has always been about defensive solidity and a cautious mentality, such is the lack of time managers have to coach players who are rarely together.

The way Didier Deschamps holds back a ludicrously talented France team, gripping the reins with all his might to play in a conservative setup, is all the evidence Southgate needs to back up his logic.

Nevertheless some England fans will be disappointed by the revelation of the Croatia game, with focus now turning to Scotland on Friday. 

Fan favourite Grealish certainly has time to battle his way into the starting XI (Southgate will likely rotate heavily in the group stages to manage the players’ fitness) but there is no chance of Foden or Grealish as a free eight, attacking full-backs sitting high up the pitch, or an aggressive defensive line with all-out entertaining football.

The second notable conclusion from the Croatia game is that Southgate will continue to trust the more experienced players in his squad, picking his team based on historic performances in an England shirt as opposed to recent club form.

The selections of Sterling and Walker in particular speak to that instinct, as does picking right-footed Trippier at left-back for his defensive qualities.

On the one hand Southgate was vindicated by the result - and his bold decision to substitute captain Kane for 18-year-old Jude Bellingham was a sign of a more adventurous side to the manager - but on the other this was not the Croatia of three years ago.

Zlatko Dalic’s side were very poor, lacking bite in midfield and attack. If this is how hesitant and defensively concerned Southgate feels against Croatia, just what will his team look like against tougher opposition in the knock-out stages?

There remains the lurking fear that England will wilt against France, Portugal, or Germany in the second round, feeding off Southgate’s energy by withdrawing into themselves and nervously dropping deeper – as they did in the World Cup semi-final.

That would lead to serious recriminations and invite the narrative that he should have taken greater risks; should have adopted a bold and high-line approach that pins the opposition back and keeps the England players’ chests puffed out for 90 minutes.

After a tame performance against a very mediocre Croatia on match day one we now know a tentative, slow-burn summer lies ahead. But that does not mean failure is an inevitable conclusion.

Ultimately results are all that matter and for all the Grealish clamour, for all the groans as Trippier and Walker took to the field, the joy or pain of Euro 2020 will be decided not by the aesthetic but how far England go.

In five years as manager, Southgate has given us little reason not to trust him.