In games like these it can be hard to resist the urge to bemoan Gareth Southgate’s reluctance to play a freewheeling 1-0-9 formation, with Phil Foden playing the sweeper role and Harry Kane leading a gung-ho attack of Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Gary Lineker, Kylian Mbappé, Erling Haaland, Pelé, Maradona and Ali Daei.
Just why does Southgate refuse to go for it? Why is he so determined not to entertain? Is he actually Otto Rehhagel in disguise? All of these questions were bubbling away when England, struggling to find their passing game on a horribly slow pitch, were being held by Albania, who were refusing to be good sports by rolling over and making life straightforward for the bigger side.
For much of the first half it was possible to detect the start of a damning inquest. Over on Twitter, home of patient and considered debate, “Two CDMs” was trending. Once again Southgate was being panned for his supposed caution, even though he had stuck with the crowd-pleasing 4-3-3 instead of reverting to a back three. He had named an interesting side, finding room for a couple of speedy full-backs, two of the best young creative midfielders in the Premier League, one of Manchester City’s best players and one of the sharpest strikers in the world.
Such is life when it comes to managing England, who were calm, controlled and clinical as they eventually wore Albania down, picking up an awkward win thanks to fine goals from Kane and Mount, who looks increasingly assured on the international stage.
The worry for Southgate is that it is easy to see where this is heading as Euro 2020 approaches. His crime here was starting Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice in central midfield. Against Albania! Two defensive midfielders. Against Albania. Albania! Do they even have football there? This is a sign of things to come, particularly as it indicates that Southgate is likely to go with two deep-lying midfielders when England open their Euros campaign against Croatia. Anti-Gareth sentiment has been growing since the disappointing Nations League campaign last autumn.
Southgate is increasingly portrayed as a negative manager who refuses to lift the handbrake and let this side motor past hapless opponents. His pragmatism, not to mention the right-back fetish, is deemed unwelcome at a time when England have so many attacking options that a player as skilful and imaginative as James Maddison is likely to miss out on the squad.
Yet Southgate is not employed to play fantasy football. In an ideal world he would be able to able to leave Rice to sweep up in front of the back four, put Mount and Phil Foden in advanced midfield roles and play a front three of Kane, Sterling and Marcus Rashford, unavailable here through injury. He could cram everyone in – maybe even find a space for Jack Grealish as a false left-back – and England would rain misery on whoever they faced, winning the Euros at a canter. At which point it is probably worth waking up. A little less arrogance might be an idea. Three years ago England rode to the semi-finals of the World Cup with a fairly ordinary side. It was thrilling because it came out of nowhere and enjoyable because the entitlement that weighed down the Golden Generation was nowhere to be seen. Now, though, the bombast is in danger of returning. Southgate does not just have to win; his critics are also paying close attention to the Expected Entertainment.
The problem is that England, who are pretty good at embarrassing themselves when they get too cocky, are going to come up against sides who can cause them problems this summer. With little time to work on coordinated attacking patterns after a draining domestic schedule, England are not about to turn into Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona just because they have some fascinating young players.
England, who have already tried Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard taking it in turns to sit, still need to be solid in the middle. They cannot ask Rice, a 22-year-old who has never played in Europe at club level, to shoulder the ball-winning burden in front of an unconvincing defence.
Southgate gets that and some of the criticism of his approach is overblown.
It is not as though England had a couple of destroyers stomping around the field against Albania. Rice has been snappy in possession for West Ham this season and is capable of starting attacks with driving runs, while Phillips does not get enough credit for his passing range.
Admittedly it was a tough watch against Albania at first. Although there were bright moments from Foden when he darted inside from the right wing, England’s passing was too slow and Kane was dropping too deep. It took a slight adjustment from Southgate to alter the flow midway through the first half, with Phillips given more freedom to push high and Mount finding more room at the tip of the midfield three.
Mount was involved in the opening goal, linking with Sterling on the left before Luke Shaw crossed for Kane to score with a powerful header. Pressure lifted, England cruised, Mount adding a crisp second after the interval.
Patience was key to this win. It is likely to be crucial this summer.
Tournament football is tight and exhausting. Southgate, who will remember that France hardly captured the imagination when they won the 2018 World Cup, just has to focus on finding the right balance and carry on drowning out the noise.