Imagine that was a league game. England found a path to victory. They were better after half-time. They had the strength of character to come from behind. It’s a sign of a title-winning team that they can still win when nowhere near their best. A lot of the squad players had a run-out. Saturday’s friendly win against Switzerland, in that sense, was a satisfactory evening for Gareth Southgate.
But this was not a league game. It was international football, so everything is heightened, hysterical and overblown, albeit not perhaps as much as it would have been in the pre-Southgate days. There is so little evidence available that everything has to be over‑scrutinised – except, perhaps, the opposition.
This is a very good Switzerland side. They’ve just progressed unbeaten through qualifying, sending Italy towards their ill-fated attempt at progressing through the playoffs. That was Murat Yakin’s first defeat in eight games as coach. They are, for what it’s worth, ranked 14th in the world, just nine places below England. Nobody had scored twice against them since the world champions France in the Euros last summer – and Switzerland ended up winning that tie on penalties. Switzerland are, by pretty much any measure, the best side England have faced since the Euros. But the tendency seems to be to think that, because it’s 41 years since England lost to Switzerland, then of course we should be beating this lot.
But a win against Switzerland, in the present context, is a decent result. Viewing this with an eye on the World Cup, Switzerland are likely to be the level of the next best team in the group.
There must also be a sense of realism, if a friendly is to have any purpose. It was not a decent performance. The best that could be said of the defending in the first half was that at least Harry Maguire wasn’t there to take the blame. It was so shambolic that Jordan Pickford – usual demeanour: kid who’s had a fizzy 1980s orangeade before 6am on Christmas morning – was telling people to calm down. That perhaps is an indication of why Maguire is necessary and, even more so, why England will probably play with two holding midfielders in the games that matter.
In that sense Saturday’s game felt like yet another example of familiar Southgate issues. There is the demand to attack, not to squander this unprecedented generation of creative talent, to unleash Jack Grealish. On the other hand, there is the reality of international football in which, necessarily given time constraints on coaches, attacking patterns are less sophisticated than in the club game.
Italy and Portugal won the previous two Euros through the strength of their defence. France won the 2018 World Cup playing cautiously, relying on their attacking power when things went wrong. Germany won the 2014 World Cup by counterattacking. Even Spain, when passing teams into oblivion, were accused of being boring in the way they stifled matches through possession.
In June 1963, England beat Switzerland 8-1 in Basel. Later that year, they beat Northern Ireland 8-3. Perhaps, people began to think, Alf Ramsey might deliver on his promise that England would win the World Cup. But the following year, at a mini-tournament in Brazil, England lost 1-0 to Argentina in a game in which they had dominated possession. For Ramsey, this was confirmation of what he had already suspected: the highest level of international football is about control. It doesn’t matter whether you beat a lesser team 8-0 or 1-0; what matters is not losing against the best.
England, particularly before half-time, lacked control. The Southgate template at the Euros was clear: a back four in games in which he expects to dominate possession; a back three in games in which that is less certain. Saturday felt like a slight tweak on that: a back three protected by just one holder in Jordan Henderson, flanked by Conor Gallagher and Mason Mount – an attempt perhaps to retain control but with a little more flair.
But it didn’t work because Switzerland kept winning the ball back in the England half and were repeatedly able to get balls into the box. When the wing-backs pushed up, there was a clear vulnerability behind them; when they didn’t, England were overmanned in the middle. Fielding two of Henderson, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips (or possibly Jude Bellingham, although that remains largely untested) would seem an obvious solution.
Then there was the well-worn trope of Harry Kane dropping deep. He is very good at it and it should be a key part of England’s armoury, but it’s largely pointless unless somebody runs beyond him. That is Raheem Sterling’s game, but it is not Phil Foden’s. In Foden and Mount, England have two tactically intelligent advanced midfielder-forwards. The thought of them playing together, creating angles, generating space, is mouth-watering, but it didn’t work against Hungary last October and it didn’t work on Saturday. In this structure, perhaps it is simply one or the other, with Kane and a runner.
For all the talk of sophistication, the England goals came in the most traditional ways imaginable: squeezing up to regain possession after a high ball in behind the full-back, then a penalty following a corner. Jack Charlton could have scripted them.
There is a lesson in that. If you have control, there are plenty of ways to score. But if you don’t have control there are plenty of ways to concede. And that’s why control, in international football, is paramount.