On the face of it, the experience of following England in the Euros ought to have limited overlap with the experience of supporting Sunderland.
The relative rarity of an international tournament contrasts sharply with the weekly grind of the third tier where the fixtures come thick and fast.
Furthermore, watching England professionally navigate themselves out of Group D and beyond made a mockery of Sunderland’s repeated failures to do likewise out of League One and our recent fall at the first hurdle in our own knock-out stage experience.
As for the quality of the product on offer, the England bench can boast an embarrassment of riches whereas the Sunderland bench is simply an embarrassment. Yet for all the many differences, and contrary to my own hopes for a welcome break from the travails of supporting Sunderland, the England journey at the Euros still managed to evoke uncomfortable reminders of the SAFC cross that we all have the misfortune of bearing.
In particular, the expectation levels and armchair punditry surrounding England brought back an all-too-familiar feeling. If England and Sunderland fans were to take F Scott Fitzgerald’s test of a first-rate intelligence, namely ‘the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’, we’d see some fascinating results.
Given the frequent criticism and dismissal of both team’s chances, yet still expressing indignant mouth-frothing surprise at their eventual failure, I’d predict a significant minority would excel at the ‘ability to hold two opposing ideas in their mind’ but would perform disastrously on the ‘ability to function’ criteria.
As England embarked on their Euros campaign, the noise surrounding the team was uncannily like a deluxe version of the budget original offered by Sunderland fans during the previous season’s final run-in. Concerns about our main striker’s form and frame of mind with a potential ‘bigger’ move in the offing?
For Charlie Wyke, see Harry Kane. Dismay that the apparently obvious solution to all our goal-scoring problems was being ignored, with an undertone of hetero and homoerotic subtext? For C. Maguire read J. Grealish. Similar echoes could be found in the increasing scepticism towards Johnson and Southgate. Likewise, the serious question marks over the centre-back pairing and the debate over whether the dual-pivot in midfield restrained the team’s creative potential.
Even with the tournament well underway, Southgate - like Johnson in the final run-in - was never short of advice, fuelled with absolute conviction, about where he was going wrong after the Scotland game… following 4 points from the opening 2 group games.
On so many occasions, but especially since being in League One, I’ve heard Sunderland fans lament the ‘unacceptable’ draw, or loss, against a supposed minnow. The draw against Scotland elicited a similarly outraged response due to a supposedly overly defensive set-up and uninspiring performance. Yet in the context of a 3-game group where, after the 1st games, the team with 1 win is playing a team with 1 defeat, a draw is not only wholly acceptable but highly desirable.
A system and style of play that favours disciplined shape over risk-taking creativity is more likely to bring that about. Just like Sunderland fans with the likes of, say, Fleetwood, there seems to be an expectation that pragmatic needs should take second place to the desire to inflict a humiliation on historic, and patronisingly underestimated, opponents.
Sunderland will sometimes have to put out a team that, on paper and maybe even on grass, looks overly defensive and cautious. The context of the League table, and much more besides, will demand it. There’s nothing emasculating, humiliating or shameful about doing that against a League One side when you’re in League One and trying to get out of it.
One of the more bizarre bits of punditry during the Euros was delivered by Micah Richards in a discussion about the need to dispense with the Phillips/Rice midfield shield. Listing England’s attacking options he opened with the insistence that Grealish must play so one of Phillips/Rice would have to make way. Getting carried away he then extolled Sancho’s qualities and suggested dispensing with any sort of defensive cover in midfield. A few days later, he described Saka as un-droppable after his impressive performance against the Czech Republic.
Presumably, Pickford would make way for him in this utopian team of all the talents? Now I like Richards’ infectious enthusiasm, though there’s no way I could’ve watched the final with any more nervous energy in the room, but such fantasy football musings have no place in any tactical analysis that considers itself rooted in reality.
With an un-Sunderland-like dearth of defensive midfielders at the moment, there may be occasions in the coming season where fans are disappointed that Johnson hasn’t used the opportunity to adopt a recklessly gung-ho formation that includes Embleton, Pritchard, Diamond, McGeady and Hawkes.
England may not have won the tournament by favouring a more calculated, measured and pragmatic approach (though, strangely, a defeat in a penalty shoot-out in the last game of a tournament doesn’t quite feel like they lost it either and is nowhere near as heart-breaking as the equivalent in a play-off game).
However, it would be a huge mistake to think that the corollary of this is that they would have done even better by throwing more caution to the wind. Southgate was able to successfully demonstrate that it’s not so much about the players who are picked but how they are used. When 7 defensively minded outfield players were picked for the Germany starting 11 the usual criticism of defensive caution being his undoing were raised. Yet the midfield shield gave licence to England’s attacking options, unfettered by defensive duties and ably supported by fluid wing-backs.
In short, the shape of the team freed everyone to play to their own particular strengths.
There’s a tendency among badly run football teams of hiring managers who are the polar opposite of the previous incumbent. After Parky, there was always a risk that Sunderland would look to a cavalier yet tactically illiterate candidate for the job.
It’s far too early to judge Johnson but, like Southgate, he seems humble enough to acknowledge mistakes and astute enough to learn and develop from them. The considered emphasis on quality over quantity in this summer’s transfer market suggests the club’s hierarchy is adopting a similar approach.
It will take Sunderland a long time to develop anything like the coherence, togetherness and sheer belief that this current England team showed in the Euros. Yet as we begin our own transformative project, it’s worth remembering the England blueprint and that good things can come to those who wait.