English football should learn from Southampton
It took just 15 minutes of Southampton's 4-1 victory over Hull before the inevitable chants started from the Northam Stand, the loudest section of St Mary's. "En-ger-land, En-ger-land, Eng-er-land" was the first. "Come on England!" swiftly followed.
This wasn't, of course, a message of support for the national side as a whole ahead of England's upcoming friendlies against Chile and Germany. It was something of a boast: for the first time since the mid-1980s, three Southampton players have been selected the England squad in Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert.
"It's just like watching England," sang the home support. However, considering that Southampton were playing attack-minded football with width and pace, interchanging positions seamlessly and pressing high without the ball, it clearly wasn't.
English football is currently facing an identity crisis. It's not merely that the national team isn't great -- we've become accustomed to that -- but that we're unsure of what we're attempting. English football has rarely been at the cutting edge of tactical and technical innovation, but rarely have we seemed quite so far behind the world's elite.
But here, in Hampshire of all places, is a fine demonstration that all is not lost. Southampton have been performing fantastically this season -- they ended the weekend in third place following this thrashing of Hull -- and have rightly been praised for their forward-thinking, direct technical football.
Mauricio Pochettino spent much of his playing career in Spain and has been cast as an Iberian-style manager bringing passing football to the south coast. In reality, Pochettino's sole Spanish club (as player and manager) was Espanyol, a club fighting against the tiki-taka obsession in La Liga, and Pochettino is a proud Argentine who famously cites Marcelo Bielsa as his primary influence.
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The prospect of the iconic manager working in England was always exciting, and while it hasn't happened, for a variety of reasons, Pochettino might be the next best thing. He's much more of a pragmatist than Bielsa -- who isn't? -- but in creating a positive, attractive and successful side featuring so many Englishmen, he could prove to be every bit as much of a revolutionary. Southampton press well and attack quickly, but they're also technically impressive and intelligent with their movement. This, more than any Premier League side in recent years, is a decent template for English football as a whole. The peculiar thing about Southampton's weekend lineup was the role of the six English players and the five foreigners. Forgive a brief trip into the stereotypes of the national game, but traditional English players thrive in the scrappy, defensive-minded positions. Jack Wilshere was recently criticised for suggesting the strength of English footballers was their tackling. "We have to remember what we are. We are English: we tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat," he said. "We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical, but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard."
It's probably not something to boast about, but Wilshere's view supports the cliche. Logically, that means England produces good centre-backs, scrappy midfielders -- and, traditionally, fine goalkeepers. It's the flair positions we struggle with. Southampton are turning the tables -- their goalkeeper (Artur Boruc) is Polish, their centre-backs are Croatian and Portuguese (Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte) and their central midfield duo (Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama) are French and Kenyan.
And elsewhere, in the roles requiring passing quality, intelligent runs and all-round technical quality, Southampton have six Englishmen. At the weekend, Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw played at full-back while Rodriguez, Lallana and James Ward-Prowse supported Lambert, the lone striker. The Saints excelled without Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, only fit enough for the bench. Pochettino's primary concern so far is lack of impact from his 12.8 million-pound record signing and, more specifically, his unimpressive partnership with Lambert. Pochettino is clearly not a fan of Gaston Ramirez, widely believed to be leaving in January, but the deployment of Lallana in the central role was the key to Southampton's victory.
In that role, Lallana is reminiscent of Arsenal's Santi Cazorla. He's not the quickest over long distances, but he's sharp and purposeful with his movements, comfortable receiving the ball under pressure and using his experience of playing in wide roles to dart towards both flanks. He played a brilliant early cross from the right before scoring a stunning goal by dribbling infield from the left.
There were essentially two parts of Southampton's attacking, which seemed almost entirely separate. The first was a triangle involving Lallana, Rodriguez and Lambert towards the left side of the pitch. Left-winger Rodriguez is comfortable switching positions with Lallana, while Lambert is much more of an all-rounder than his reputation would suggest, equally capable of moving towards play and holding up the ball or turning to play dangerous through-balls for his two teammates. Southampton won the penalty for their second goal in this fashion, with Lallana sprinting in behind the defence onto Lambert's clever pass. The second component of their attack on the opposite flank involved Ward-Prowse playing an entirely different role. He never ventured inside from the wing, instead combining excellently with attacking right-back Clyne. It's rare to find a full-back and a wide midfielder so comfortable at working up and down the line together -- modern full-backs increasingly want to play behind a winger who will cut inside and leave them space on the overlap. But Ward-Prowse and Clyne didn’t get in each other's way, happy as they were to switch positions and cover for each other. Clyne demonstrated his crossing ability for the opening goal while Ward-Prowse filled in at right-back, winning three tackles, the most of any Southampton player. On the opposite side, the highly rated Shaw played competently but was rather removed from Southampton's promising moves, coming into the game more in the latter stages.
As the clock turned 90 on a cold, rainy November afternoon with Southampton 4-1 up and the contest long since finished, the fourth official raised his board, signalling the amount of stoppage time to be played. Four minutes, it read. A cheer went up, illustrating how keenly the Southampton fans are enjoying their side's play -- four more minutes of exhibition football, they thought.
They were thoroughly encouraged by the football on show. English football should be too.