Gareth Southgate’s substitutions speak of a man who always has a plan

One of Gareth Southgate’s greatest assets is his refusal to go for the populist choice. England’s manager has not shied away from making tough decisions throughout Euro 2020, whether it has been switching to a back three against Germany or ignoring the clamour to build his attack around Jack Grealish, and his clarity of purpose was in evidence again during his side’s victory over Denmark on Wednesday night.

This time it was about Southgate’s restrained use of his bench. Let’s be honest: most of us would not have been able to resist the urge to replace one of the defensive midfielders with an attacker when England were trying to find a way past a weary defence at the end of normal time. It would have been time to go for broke, for Declan Rice or Kalvin Phillips to make way for Phil Foden, and for England to chase the winner in a way that would have gone against the focus they have placed on control since the start of the tournament.

Southgate kept it cool. He made one like-for-like change during the 90 minutes, replacing Bukayo Saka with Grealish, and he kept faith in his approach when he made a double substitution at the start of extra time, trusting in England’s process and system by refusing to unleash the full force of the attacking options.

Instead it was something more reserved. There was another straight swap, Foden on for Mason Mount, and there was no major restructuring when Rice came off, no call for Jadon Sancho to get ready to charge at Denmark’s faltering left flank. England still had two holders on the pitch, with Jordan Henderson on to up the tempo in the middle, and the ploy soon brought a reward, Raheem Sterling winning that controversial penalty seven minutes after Southgate’s changes.

It was simplicity at its best, underlining England’s tactical focus. This team do not panic. The manager does not allow it. Southgate, who was patient enough to wait until extra time before making his bench count against Denmark, understands tournament football. He has nailed his squad management and has consistently made the right choices during games.

The coherence is refreshing to watch. It was not always like this. Five years ago Roy Hodgson went the opposite way when England reached their nadir at Euro 2016, throwing on attacker after attacker in a doomed search for an equaliser against Iceland. It started with Hodgson bringing off his only holding player at half-time, Eric Dier making way for Jack Wilshere, and in the end England had four strikers on the pitch, no wingers, no discernible formation and no plan.

That was how England used to be. It wasn’t that long ago. Now, though, there is no reverence to the big names. Southgate substituted his captain, Harry Kane, twice during the group stage and he made another brave decision after taking the lead against Denmark, causing surprise by substituting a substitute, taking off Grealish for Kieran Trippier and going to 3-4-3.

Nobody saw that one coming and the backlash would have been fierce if Denmark had equalised. Yet Southgate continues to back himself and an underrated achievement has been how he has ensured that his squad’s strength in depth, particularly in the final third, has not turned into a weakness.

It has not been muddled. For all the talk of England’s attacking power, Southgate has not indulged himself by cramming forwards into his team. Everything has been done with a purpose. The changes during the opening victory over Croatia were designed to see England over the line and the criticism that followed the refusal to take off one of Rice or Phillips during the draw with Scotland was rebutted, Southgate pointing out that he did not want to invite the possibility of being caught on the break.

To his critics, of course, that comment was taken as evidence of the caginess that would see England fail to realise their potential. Yet Southgate held his nerve. He waited against Germany. He did not change the system and he made only one change when it was goalless, Saka going off for Grealish, who had a hand in both goals.

Four days later it was Sancho’s turn. The winger had only played six minutes all tournament before starting against Ukraine, but he was ready after coming in for the quarter-final. Sancho played his part in a thumping win and Southgate was able to rotate in the second half, Rice and Phillips coming off to ensure neither picked up a booking that would have resulted in a suspension.

Once again it was smart, prudent management from a coach who judges each situation on its merits. It is no wonder that Southgate has a buy-in from his squad. He has spoken glowingly about the players who have had to watch from the sidelines, praising their respect for the group ethos.

Marcus Rashford, a star at Manchester United, has barely played. Henderson, a Premier League and Champions League winner with Liverpool, has been a leader off the pitch, even though midfielders from West Ham and Leeds are starting instead of him.

It comes back to the culture introduced by Southgate. The mood is professional and precise, and the 26-man squad has never felt baggy. It is because the players know their manager has a plan.