Gareth Southgate is adamant patient possession football is the way forward for his England Under-21s despite Duncan Watmore’s more direct approach against Switzerland.
England were losing 1-0 to the Swiss in Brighton on Monday evening until substitute Watmore’s 75th-minute introduction inspired a comeback. The Sunderland man won the penalty from which James Ward-Prowse equalised, scored the goal that gave them the lead and then created a third for Chuba Akpom in stoppage time to secure a 3-1 victory.
With three wins and a draw from their opening four qualifiers for the 2017 European Championship, first-placed England are three points clear in Group Nine and widely expected to reach their sixth consecutive major tournament.
Without Watmore’s influence that positive picture could easily have been vastly different, however, and may have prompted questions about Southgate’s persistence with a patient passing game.
For the majority of Monday’s fixture England were both fluid and composed as they dominated possession, but in the final third they lacked a consistent threat or the variety required to create clear goalscoring chances.
Southgate was missing the likes of James Wilson, Jordon Ibe and Nathan Redmond through injury and without them his team simply looked unlikely to score.
Southgate’s appointment in August 2013 was partly influenced by his understanding of the Football Association’s vision for creating a successful identity for England’s young players, and at under-21 level the team’s ball retention has vastly improved.
Without results it would eventually prove difficult to persist with his model but the manager has no intention of altering his patient approach, believing that their use of the ball prior to Watmore’s introduction had provided the platform on which the forward ultimately thrived.
“We’re unbeaten, we’re top of the group, we have players who can pose different sorts of problems,” Southgate said.
“I firmly believe in the way that we go about our work. We’ve conceded one goal in four games. Defensively we’ve looked solid and that’s despite having an enormous number of changes as a group. I fully believe in the way that we play and I think the players believe in the way that we play, and that patience has told in the end.
“The patience in possession tires the opposition, and that’s why the last 10 minutes of games, when you look back over the last couple of years, late goals are a hallmark of us because teams run out of steam (against us).
“You have to keep doing those things and maybe we can pose them different problems tactically as well, but if you don’t have the ball then you’re doing the chasing and maybe the goals go in the other end in the last 10 minutes.
“We’ve picked a team that we felt could cause the opposition most problems, and we wanted to have players that could alter the game from the bench.
“In terms of what the lads have done and the way they’ve carried it out, I couldn’t ask more of them as a group. Three debuts on Thursday, two debuts (on Monday), it’s an outstanding performance against a really, really good team.”