IImagine it was a league match. England found a way to victory. They were better after halftime. 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 they’re nowhere near their best. Many of the players in the squad had a break. Saturday’s friendly victory against Switzerland, in that sense, was a satisfying evening for Gareth Southgate.
But this was not a league game. It was international football, so it’s all over the top, hysterical and over the top, though maybe not as much as it was in the pre-Southgate days. There is so little evidence available that everything has to be over-examined, except, perhaps, the opposition.
This is a very good selection from Switzerland. They have just progressed undefeated through qualifying, sending Italy towards their failed attempt to advance to the playoffs. That was Murat Yakin’s first loss in eight games as coach. They are, for what it’s worth, ranked 14th in the world, just nine places below England. No one had scored twice against them since Euro world champions France last summer and Switzerland ended up winning that tie on penalties. Switzerland are, by almost any measure, the best team England have faced since the European Championships. But the tendency seems to be to think that because it’s been 41 years since England lost to Switzerland, then of course we should beat this lot.
But a victory against Switzerland, in the current context, is a decent result. Seeing this with an eye on the World Cup, Switzerland are likely to be level with 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 for the defense in the first half was that at least Harry Maguire wasn’t there to take the blame. It was so chaotic that Jordan Pickford (usual behavior: guy who had a fizzy ’80s orangeade before 6 a.m. on Christmas morning) told people to calm down. That is perhaps an indication of why Maguire is needed and, more so, why England are likely to play two holding midfielders in the games that matter.
In that sense, Saturday’s game felt like yet another example of Southgate’s family problems. There is a demand to attack, not squander this unprecedented generation of creative talent, to unleash Jack Grealish. On the other hand, there is the reality of international football where, necessarily given coaches’ time constraints, attacking patterns are less sophisticated than in club play.
Italy and Portugal won the two previous European Championships thanks to the solidity of their defense. France won the 2018 World Cup by playing cautiously, relying on their attacking power when things went wrong. Germany won the 2014 World Cup by fighting back. Even Spain, when teams passed into oblivion, were accused of being boring in the way they suffocated games 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 could make good 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 already suspected: the highest level of international football is all about control. It doesn’t matter if you beat a lesser team 8-0 or 1-0; the important thing is not to lose against the best.
England, particularly before halftime, lacked control. Southgate’s squad at the European Championship was clear: defending four in games where he hopes to dominate possession; a back three in games where that is less certain. Saturday felt like a slight change in that: a defense of three protected by a single starter in Jordan Henderson, flanked by Conor Gallagher and Mason Mount, an attempt perhaps to maintain control but with a little more flair.
But it didn’t work out because Switzerland kept getting the ball back in the England half and was repeatedly able to get balls into the area. When the full-backs pushed up, there was a clear vulnerability behind them; when they didn’t, England was overcrowded in the middle. Introducing two of Henderson’s, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips (or possibly Jude Bellingham, though that’s largely untested yet) would seem like an obvious solution.
Then there was the well-worn trope of Harry Kane falling deep. He’s very good at it and should be a key part of England’s arsenal, but it’s largely pointless unless someone beats him. That’s Raheem Sterling’s game, but it’s not Phil Foden’s. In Foden and Mount, England have two tactically savvy forward midfielders. The idea of them playing together, creating angles, creating space, is delightful, but it didn’t work against Hungary last October and it didn’t work on Saturday. In this structure, maybe it’s just one or the other, with Kane and a running back.
For all the talk of sophistication, England’s goals came in the most traditional fashion imaginable: pressing to win back possession after a high ball behind the wing, then a penalty after a corner. Jack Charlton could have written them.
There is a lesson in that. If you’re in control, there are plenty of ways to score. But if you’re not in control, there are plenty of ways to give in. And that is why control, in international football, is paramount.