They’ll tell you football is a simple game, but it’s not, not really, not at the very highest level. It is still just about possible to win games by telling nine of your outfielders to stay behind the ball and whacking it long to the big bloke or the quick bloke up top, but not often and not consistently.
Top-level club football these days is about complex structures, about pressing at the right time and in the right disposition, about disrupting the internal dynamics of the opposition while keeping your own varied enough that they are hard to disrupt.
That takes time. It takes regular and consistent drilling until knowing when and how to press becomes second nature. It requires plans to be subtly adjusted week by week to take account of the opponent.
The wild results in the opening month of the Premier League season are evidence of what happens when that time is reduced and the organisation is diminished. These are complex mechanisms and it takes only one cog to be slightly awry to unbalance the whole machine.
Where some clubs, such as Liverpool, have pressed on, seemingly reasoning that their rhythm would come, others – particularly those who were still developing a way of playing – have gone back to a more basic model. Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea was a classic stalemate of two sides playing within themselves, taking few risks and looking to retain their structure.
That, with few exceptions, is what international football is like all the time. Excluding tournaments, international managers have their players for roughly six periods of eight-to-nine days a year when they play around a dozen games. Their squads will often change significantly from month to month as injuries strike and form fluctuates.
There is a constant negotiation with the clubs to secure the release of players and restrict their workload: José Mourinho was unable to talk about Eric Dier’s recent hamstring injury without mentioning that he had sustained it on international duty; or imagine the furore if Trent Alexander-Arnold had sustained his calf injury after being flogged through three games in eight days by Gareth Southgate rather than seven games in 23 days by Jürgen Klopp. Joe Gomez’s injury, perhaps induced by fatigue, happened early enough in the break that Southgate cannot realistically be blamed, but it is not going to help club-country relations.
Occasionally, a national federation is able to organise an extended training camp, as South Korea enjoyed before the 2002 World Cup. Sometimes a visionary manager can set a template that a gifted generation grows into, familiarity with the system and each other generating fluency, as happened with Chile under Marcelo Bielsa, the benefits of which were still being felt when the Bielsa disciple Jorge Sampaoli led them to victory in the Copa América. More frequently, a successful club will provide a core for a national side, as happened with Honved and Hungary in the early 50s, Ajax and the Netherlands in the early 70s or Barcelona and Spain a decade ago.
By and large, though, international football is basic. That can be detrimental to the spectacle particularly if, as often the case in qualifiers, there is a significant imbalance in quality between the sides. The weaker team pack their defence and the stronger side, lacking the coherent structures of attacking the players are used to at club level, struggle to break their opponents down.
That, understandably, leads to frustration, from pundits and the audience, and perhaps also from coaches and players. After the attacking fluency that even now characterises the best of the Premier League and the Champions League, international football can seem stodgy and drab. That leads to criticism of the manager, his approach and his selection, often in the guise of promoting the one great creator who might somehow energise an otherwise grey team.
But there is a fundamental point here and it is that since Brazil in 1970, every side to have won the World Cup has been, at heart, pragmatic.
Didier Deschamps had a squad packed with ludicrous ability, but his France were often grimly functional. Joachim Löw’s best Germany was probably the counterattacking side that lost in the semi-final in 2010, but they won the tournament four years later after reverting to that approach following a dabble with something more progressive – a continuing dabble that still undermines them defensively now. Even Spain in 2010 became sterile in their mastery of possession, using it for control.
In 2019, England scored 38 times in 10 games – goals were not a problem. Yet, weirdly, much of the recent criticism of Southgate has addressed a supposed lack of creativity as though it were a chronic problem.
Last year, England’s issue was the defensive shortcomings exposed by the Netherlands in the Nations League semi-final and by Kosovo and the Czech Republic in the Euro qualifiers. Given the disruption of this season it has made sense for Southgate to attempt to instil solidity – and that may at times mean picking a player for his tactical intelligence rather than his obvious flair, balancing consistency of approach with immediate form.
Despite impatient calls to build the team around whichever Premier League creator happens to be flavour of the month (as though any successful major team has been built around a single player in 30 years), he has largely achieved his aim.
England this year have conceded two goals in six games, both penalties, one of those highly questionable and coming anyway after they had been reduced to 10 men by two daft Harry Maguire challenges that had little to do with structure or his manager.
Whether abandoning the 4-3-3 and reverting to a 3-4-2-1 is the right way to achieve that base can be debated, as can personnel. Questions can be raised about Southgate’s in-game tactical management, notably against Colombia and Croatia at the World Cup, although he got it very right at home to Belgium last month. But to deny the basic rationale behind what Southgate is attempting is to ignore the fundamental nature of international football.