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Thursday, May 19, 2022

An hour of Gallagher’s flicks and feints goes a long way for Southgate | England

As bitty, meandering spring friendlies go this was a quietly fascinating evening at Wembley Stadium. What did we learn? What messages will England take “going forward” from a fortunate 2-1 victory against a dogged Switzerland in a game of weirdly unbound interludes and, at times, a jarringly open England midfield.

For one thing, it turns out an hour of Conor Gallagher goes a long way. This was a hugely instructive first England start, although not perhaps in the way those enjoying Gallagher’s flicks and feints, the basic joy of watching a footballer who hares about like a puppy chasing squirrels, might have hoped.

At times it felt as though the sight of Gallagher romping about in midfield was like a glimpse into some alternate reality, a place where Southgate’s England don’t play like Southgate’s England, where the game becomes chancier, riskier, less compressed.

And really it was all here, the world in grain of sand, the full deep tactical background of Southgate’s England. Flip back over the last six years and the leitmotif of this version of the national team is a struggle between duty and adventure, the triumph of pragmatism and roundhead certainties over cavalier flickers of adventure.

Now and then there have been experiments with a little loosing of the bonds, often abandoned just as quickly as they came. Here it took 60 minutes for Southgate to pull the plug. The frown lines, the crossed arms. This was not the look of a man enjoying a Damascene conversion to the unfettered midfield, to creative freedom, open spaces.

It is a mark of just how set Southgate’s tactics are that a starting central midfield of Gallagher and Jordan Henderson should come across as recklessly bold, the football manager equivalent of wearing a novelty tie to work and a pair of daring red braces.

Henderson and Gallagher both like to run forward, to play ahead of the midfield bolt. Here Gallagher sprinted 60 yards upfield and 60 yards back in the opening minutes without touching the ball once, flowing blond tresses catching the late evening light.

Four minutes in he was surging off down the right, pulling a cross back, leaping to kung-fu trap a high pass, drawing squeals of approval from the youthful crowd. And in those early minutes Gallagher looked like a man having the time of his life, running off a spurt of adrenaline that just kept on refusing to die. Here is an England international who really, really, really, really likes playing football. Is that good? Is it OK?

Gareth Southgate reacts against Switzerland.
Gareth Southgate played Conor Gallagher alongside Jordan Henderson in central midfield against Switzerland. Photograph: Dave Shopland/Shutterstock

It was certainly fun to watch. Although steadily those spaces began to open up, great green holes in England’s rump. For all Gallagher’s invention and edge he will probably be blamed for going forward too much, for leaving Henderson, who isn’t a proper deep shielding player, whirling about pointing and yelling, spooked by the space around him.

None of this was Gallagher’s fault exactly. He played like Conor Gallagher. He occupied the spaces Conor Gallagher likes to occupy. This imbalance is surely on Southgate, a tactical wallflower being asked, reluctantly to dance, and sending out a team that really didn’t look prepped for it.

Xherdan Shaqiri caused endless problems dropping into a deep inside right channel. Marc Guéhi came out to close the space and was often a little exposed. The relationship between wing-back and centre-half is the most common point of weakness in this system. Switzerland exploited that loose stitching. But it surely is the job of the coach to address these things, to make sure the players in those roles know exactly how to seal that join. Surely the rest of this England team should be drilled enough to manage these spaces. Should England really need to field seven defensive players just to keep a lid on Switzerland at Wembley?

It took 21 minutes to gouge a thumb right into that weak spot. Shaqiri cut inside and delivered a lovely dipping left-foot cross for Breel Embolo, lurking expertly, to nod the ball back across and into the net. England’s equaliser just before half-time was made by a nice piece of closing down from Kyle Walker-Peters. Gallagher shimmied inside. His quick pass across goal became an inadvertent assist for Luke Shaw, whose wonderful spanked drive billowed the Wembleynet.

The second half was a slightly different story. England seemed to have closed some of those spaces. With an hour gone there was a quadruple change as Gallagher came off and Southgate went to a solid looking 4-2-3-1. The penalty award for Harry Kane’s winning goal was soft. But England had control by then, with Declan Rice, Henderson and Jude Bellingham occupying the ground in those central areas.

The reality is all three of those players – and Rice is well on his way to becoming England’s best player – will be ahead of Gallagher in Southgate’s roster, with Kalvin Phillips to follow. Probably this glimpse will remain little more than a brief spring bloom.

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And it isn’t hard to see why Southgate is so conservative. This has, let’s face it, been the super-strength of this England team. Five games at a tournament without shipping a goal. Why would you compromise that? This is how England have prospered, with time to draw breath and keep the ball in deep areas.

What did we learn? Mainly, that for all the notes of fun here, England will be playing 3-4-3 when it matters. The double midfield bolt isn’t going anywhere. Gareth is as Gareth does. And this really isn’t the moment to get off the boat.

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