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EURO 2020: Gareth Southgate's conservative England proving the risk-takers wrong 

Gareth Southgate is leading England his way.
Gareth Southgate is leading England his way.
Mark Pitman
EXPERT COLUMNIST

England manager Gareth Southgate has earned the right to make big decisions when it comes to his team selection. Defying popular opinion has been the cornerstone of the success that his side have achieved in reaching the last eight of Euro 2020.

While millions of fans across the country believe they know better than Southgate when it comes to naming England's starting line-up, there is a reason why he is in that position over all the others.

Former players and pundits have a wider audience to voice their opinion, but few tend to agree with the approach of the man who is getting it right when it matters.

England debate

Even the German media became involved in the debate in the build-up to England's 2-0 win at Wembley on Tuesday evening as they remain confused over the continued omission of Jadon Sancho.

His performances for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga would make him a guaranteed starter for Die Mannschaft, but for England, he remains a spectator.

Likewise, the English media have chosen to focus on the sporadic use of Jack Grealish as the Aston Villa talisman remains subject to a reported £100 million move to Manchester City.

The influential midfielder came off the bench and subsequently had a hand in both goals against Germany. But he knows that still may not be enough to convince Southgate to hand him a starting place on Saturday night.

Jack Grealish impressed from the bench for England against Germany.
Jack Grealish impressed from the bench for England against Germany.

The publishing of England's starting line-up on Tuesday prompted a chorus of criticism. Labeled as a defensive team for a match against a German side struggling through a period of transition under departing manager Joachim Low, a more positive approach was hoped for, especially in the backdrop of a passionate Wembley crowd. But it was not necessarily expected.

Southgate was appointed to succeed Sam Allardyce as England manager in 2016, as he was seen as a 'safe' option. Praised for his work with the U21 side, the former defender would more importantly not court controversy like his predecessor. He fits the role and the image that the FA want from the national team manager, and he is slowly but surely delivering progress on the field.

England have been effective if not exciting under Gareth Southgate

In fact, in the history of the England national team, only Fabio Capello has generated a better winning percentage, and that record is well within Gareth Southgate's reach.

The differences between Capello and Southgate and their respective approaches to the job are extensive and clear. But there are also tactical similarities that have influenced the statistical comparison.

Fabio Capello was criticised as England manager but achieved results.
Fabio Capello was criticised as England manager but achieved results.

It would be easy to label Southgate as negative when flair players like Sancho and Grealish are used sparingly. Raheem Sterling is the exception to the rule and is embracing the creative freedom he is licensed to exploit in Southgate's preferred system.

While other nations may tactically adapt to include such players, for Southgate, they remain a luxury rather than an essential item. There is frustration within the English press and public that a generation that includes such creative talent is not being used to maximum effect.

But these are the same supporters and pundits who heap praise on Southgate when his tactical decisions work as well as they did on Tuesday. After 55 years of hurt, it's only results that matter for England now.

Southgate guided England to the semi-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Southgate guided England to the semi-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

England now take on Ukraine in Rome on Saturday night. The latter's protracted victory over Sweden on Tuesday was physically draining and brought with it a list of injury concerns.

Rest and recovery will be the primary focus for manager Andriy Shevchenko and his side now, but there is a fighting spirit within this team that could make it difficult for England.

Ukraine - a tough proposition for England

In contrast to Southgate and his playing career as a central defender, Shevchenko was one of the finest goalscorers of his generation and remains a legend in the European game.

His moments of brilliance have defined tournaments for club and country, and he is now leading Ukraine to unprecedented levels of success at a major tournament.

Andriy Shevchenko has set a high standard for his Ukraine side.
Andriy Shevchenko has set a high standard for his Ukraine side.

Although they are playing away from Wembley for the one and only time in the tournament, there is a high level of expectancy associated with England this weekend.

There will be added pressure on Southgate to name a more attacking team selection, but his approach will not be influenced by those on the outside.

Not embracing the belief of a nation in the creative talent available to him will be the biggest risk he will take. If he can accommodate the likes of Sancho and Grealish with Sterling, he would be praised for his approach but quickly criticised if things do not go England's way.

Likewise, losing while remaining true to the beliefs that have taken him this far will have significant consequences. Kalvin Phillips and teenager Bukayo Saka have embraced their opportunities, and it is clear that Southgate wants players to fit his system rather than fitting a system around his players.

Gareth Southgate has a defined image for his England team.
Gareth Southgate has a defined image for his England team.

Southgate also suffered extensive media scrutiny while representing his country as a player. His memories of EURO 1996 will only ever surround his missed penalty against Germany.

He is above the narrative of taking any personal redemption from Tuesday's victory. But he will take a moment to enjoy the vindication of his approach to the match.

Is it coming home for England?

England have a generation of players that can deliver.
England have a generation of players that can deliver.

The format of EURO 2020 has worked in England's favour. They have found themselves on the right side of the draw, on paper at least. Ukraine will be a very different proposition to Germany on Saturday, and the momentum from the manner of their victory over Sweden will compensate for their diminished energy levels.

Southgate will once again need his leaders to step forward on Saturday for what will be a physical contest. His side will need to be disciplined in their approach. England will be favorites to progress to the semi-finals but expect the creativity that takes them there to come from the bench and not from the start.

Under Southgate, that's the England way.

Edited by Bhargav
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