Gareth Southgate has urged his England team to emulate the Euro 96 side which produced England’s best performance at a major tournament in the last 28 years by reaching the semi-finals playing a fluid, passing game under coach Terry Venables.
England memorably thrashed Holland 4-1 in that tournament, perhaps the best display by the national team since 1990, with Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Gascoigne starring.
Southgate himself missed the fateful penalty in the semi-final shootout which saw England deliver a similarly-impressive display before being eliminated by eventual champions Germany.
England manager Gareth Southgate wants his side to emulate his Euro 96 side at Russia 2018
Southgate masterminded England’s 1-0 victory over Holland in a friendly on Friday evening
And if England can’t reasonably expect to invoke the spirit of ’66 as they prepare for a World Cup in Russia, they perhaps can aspire to play like the team of ’96.
On Friday night they were admittedly up against the worst Dutch side since the Sixties. Still, England looked the more competent in possession. Playing in Amsterdam at the stadium that many want eventually to bear the name of Johan Cruyff, England looked comfortable moving the ball from goalkeeper to defenders and through the pivotal midfielder.
Though not yet setting the world alight, Southgate’s side looked a work in progress. And at times their passing and shape bore some resemblance to the teams Southgate played in at Euro 96 and in the 1998 World Cup finals. ‘I don’t think we were quite as fluent as that,’ said Southgate, sounding a cautionary note. And certainly England have a long way to go to get close to the best Euro ’96 performances. ‘[But] I think on Friday night we were more fluid because the players have different attributes to those we had then.
‘The young defenders that are coming through have a different skillset, with the clubs encouraging them to play that way. It really allows us to adopt a different mentality. I was really pleased with the composure they showed. We picked specific players in the squad to do that, from the goalkeeper right the way through the team, and they played with a confidence and enjoyed the ball.’
Jordan Pickford is now in the frontline to start against Tunisia when England kick off their campaign in Russia, as much for the way he started the move that led to Jesse Lingard’s goal as for his goalkeeping.
There was a throwback in the use of Kyle Walker as well on the right side of a back three. The Euro ’96 team started the tournament with a 4-4-2 shape but evolved into 3-5-2, with Southgate playing his way into the team. And by the semi-final Stuart Pearce, a left back, was converted into the left-sided player in the back three.
Southgate was touted as the defender who could play a bit in 1996. Now he has a clutch of those in Harry Maguire, John Stones, Joe Gomez and Walker, if this is to be a new role.
Southgate was particularly encouraged by Stones’ display, given that he currently can’t get playing time at Manchester City.
England’s Euro 96 run ended with Southgate missing in a penalty-shootout loss to Germany
But wins over Scotland, Holland and Spain make it England’s best tournament show since 1990
‘His last three matches for us have been outstanding and he’s really unfortunate to be out of the team. I think Pep believes in him tremendously but he has Kompany playing well and Otamendi.
‘This week will help John to be match sharp going back into some big games. I worked with him four years ago and very quickly you were seeing a player that was not the normal English centre-back and he was one who really enjoyed his football against Holland.’
Glenn Hoddle’s teams, in which Southgate also featured at the 1998 World Cup, always played with a back three. Hoddle himself was scarred by his own experiences playing in midfield for England in the 1980s, when the team was outnumbered in midfield; he resolved always to create space for an extra midfielder to ensure his side never suffered the same fate.
This will still be an issue in Russia. Southgate’s current solution is to use either Jordan Henderson or Eric Dier as his pivot, with two more offensive midfielders, effectively two No 8s, in front. On Friday, Lingard and Oxlade-Chamberlain fitted the bill.
Southgate said: ‘We did similarly in November [against Germany and Brazil] but we wanted the No 8s to have a more offensive mindset. Those two, Ox and Jesse, are in really good form for their clubs, they make telling runs and their use of the ball linking with Marcus [Rashford] and Raheem [Sterling] was good. It meant we have terrific pace and energy with the four of them.
‘Jordan’s use of the ball was good. He played an intelligent role as the pivot and linked it because of the speed ahead of him. That’s probably a route for us to go. If we are a lowtempo team looking for a playmaker, I’m not sure we have that player at the moment or that it suits some of our other strengths. For us to play with pace and energy and no little composure, I think is a good route for us to go.’
They won’t hit the heights of ’66. They probably won’t get to the levels of ’96. But they do at least look an attractive team with a football brain. Let’s hope they survive the summer’s examination.
22 MINS, ZERO TOUCHES… VARDY’S EXTRAORDINARY CAMEO
Jamie Vardy did something extraordinary on Friday night in the Amsterdam Arena. He came on for the last 22 minutes and didn’t touch the ball.
The England striker confirmed what the post-match stats recorded — that he hadn’t had a single moment on the ball.
‘No, I didn’t,’ he said. ‘But I did a lot of running!’
Vardy couldn’t recall whether this had ever happened to him before but was relaxed about putting the needs of the team first. ‘I came on at a time that Holland were trying to get a goal back,’ he said. ‘As a striker you do sometimes have to sacrifice and we just want to make sure we attack as a team and defend as a team, so I had to help out the midfield as well.’
Asked whether his team-mates had made light of his lack of contribution on the ball, he said: ‘Not yet, but I’m sure they will now.’
He has the perfect riposte, however. He is the only player not to have made a mistake. ‘Exactly,’ said Vardy. ‘That’s a good point.’
Vardy should at least be more involved on Tuesday at Wembley against Italy where he will be expected to start and, with seven goals in nine games for Leicester, he is in a rich vein of form. ‘For the past nine games I’ve been getting the goals and hopefully it will continue until the end of the season and get me selected for the World Cup squad,’ he said.
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.