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Kevin Kilbane: Twisted Southgate tactics leave England on familiar terrain

Settle on a system and select the personnel to execute it. Be flexible, but decisive — it’s called coaching

England's Declan Rice after the final whistle against Denmark. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Typical England, ever since 1966. Take the lead, lose all semblance of control and almost bottle it against Serbia and Denmark.

Harry Kane scored and then created the Danish equaliser before being replaced by Gareth Southgate. That’s the English captain and coach at Euro 2024.

Morten Hjulmand deserves credit for a fantastic finish but Kane’s cross-field welly would have an under-14 player unceremoniously whipped off.

This column previously stated that Southgate had taken England as far as he possibly could. Germany was one big tournament too many for his overly-cautious approach.


We can add ridiculous excuses to his list of faults. Thinking it sensible to mention the absence of Kalvin Phillips from the base of midfield, alongside Declan Rice, as a primary reason for these malfunctioning performances must have delighted Julian Nagelsmann, Roberto Martinez, Didier Deschamps and Luis De La Fuente.

The managers of Germany, Portugal, France and Spain understand their brief: settle on a system and select the personnel to execute it. Be flexible, sure, but be decisive. It’s called coaching.

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Mentioning Phillips, who has barely featured for England since 2021, sends a clear message to Adam Wharton and Kobbie Mainoo that their manager does not trust them.

To start and then remove Trent Alexander-Arnold against Serbia and Denmark, is the manager effectively admitting to his own cluelessness. Remarkably, he said as much afterwards, with a misjudged attempt to manage the media fallout by saying “we are experimenting”.

Spain and Germany used the build-up to experiment before executing a system, largely copied from Deschamps; pick a goalscoring number nine in Morata/Havertz/Fullkrug before unleashing some of the most exciting young wingers in the game.

Spain's Nico Williams torments Italian defenders in the Group B match in Gelsenkirchen on Thurday, which Spain won 1-0. Photograph: Patrician De Melo Moreira/Getty Images

England have similar resources, but this tournament already belongs to the lethal Spanish duo Nico Williams and Lamine Yamal, and German 21-year-olds Jamal Musiala and Florian Wittz.

What to do with Jude Bellingham? See Antoine Griezmann for France and İlkay Gündoğan for Germany. Problem solved, if Bellingham can truly fill the false-10 position. We know Phil Foden belongs there because he is outstanding in that role for Manchester City.

The England narrative mirrors the failings of their previous “golden generation” as Southgate cannot climb out of his own twisted tactical brain.

Everyone sees it now: Kane, Bellingham, Foden and Saka do not work as a front four. Just like Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard and Beckham used to clog up each other’s space.

James McClean is spot on about Declan Rice. The former Republic of Ireland midfielder is not in the same world-class arena as Toni Kroos and Rodri.

Rice was atrocious against Denmark. His head is gone. Blaming the turf for his inability to control, turn and distribute forward under minimal pressure tells its own story. He is not worth the £100 million Arsenal paid West Ham last summer.

It should be noted that England are top of Group C on four points from two games. But our eyes are not deceiving us. Under Southgate, they are locked into a downward spiral.

Look at the team that finished against Denmark and try not to laugh (or cry, depending on your perspective): Pickford, Walker, Stones, Guehi, Trippier behind Gallagher and Rice with Eze, Bellingham, Bowen and Watkins is not what anyone could have predicted.

From an English perspective, Cole Palmer and Mainoo kicking their heels in the dugout is the iconic image of this Euros. Two in-form and exceptional Premier League players surplus to requirements.

Gareth Southgate and Jude Bellingham after the disappointing draw against Denmark on Thursday in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

For the rest of us, Williams and Musiala are lighting up the tournament; two uncontainable, versatile wingers who profit from the distribution of Rodri and Kroos.

Southgate the strategist has made several disastrous decisions. He previously built a squad on the foundation stones of Jordan Henderson, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling only to drop this quartet, citing middling seasons at their clubs.

This now looks foolish as it eradicates England’s Plan B. They offer nothing down the left, where Rashford or Grealish are proven operators.

Southgate no longer knows what he is doing. Even his strength as an organiser is being exposed.

A surprise run to the World Cup semi-final in 2018 was followed by their march to the Euros decider at Wembley in 2021, where the collective English mentality was exposed. After taking an early lead, thanks to a Luke Shaw goal, the nation watched in horror as their heroes’ confidence visibly drained. Italy sensed the mood, dragging them to penalties where Gianluigi Donnarumma proved the difference.

In Qatar 18 months ago, come the World Cup quarter-final, Southgate’s England reached its peak, going toe to toe with France and only losing to a brilliant Aurélien Tchouaméni strike.

Italian roadrunners cannot outrun wily Spain despite Donnarumma’s heroicsOpens in new window ]

That was the moment the manager needed to step aside. Instead, he attempted a rebuild only to second-guess himself after eight years of employing a rigid formation that the players were supposed to understand.

Another slip and it is Germany in the last 16 on June 29th. Not all is lost. Put Bellingham beside Rice against Slovenia, make Foden the 10 and start Palmer with Saka moving to the left instead of Trippier.

There is a psychological solution for these English players: watch Spain against Italy, after they went 1-0 up. Watch how they kept pouring forward, with Williams doing everything in his power to beat Donnarumma. Fingertips and crossbars kept the Italians in touch but no team can equalise without the ball.