Gareth Southgate says England produced their best statistical performance against a big nation despite losing 2-0 to Belgium last time out.
The Nations League defeat in Leuven has prompted calls for Southgate to ditch his 3-4-3 system ahead of Wednesday’s home clash with Iceland.
But the England boss insisted the formation had produced a better performance then the result suggested, comparing it favourably to the famous 3-2 away win over Spain in October 2018.
Asked if his system was too conservative, Southgate said on Tuesday: “Well, I think we were very exciting to watch against Ireland four or five days ago and we were very exciting to watch against Belgium.
“Statistically, our job is to analyse games during and after them. There is a coaching eye on how we have played and then we look at the data.
“[Against Belgium] that is as good a performance as we have had against any of the big nations.
“The interesting thing is there is a perception we didn’t start the game well. But in the first half an hour we had more attempts on goal than Belgium; possession, they had a tiny bit more around 52 per cent, but we had the more dangerous attacks and more shots on goal.
“I understand once they were ahead in the latter stages of the game maybe they sat back a bit, but that’s partly because we pressed well and they couldn’t get out.
“So that performance [against Belgium] was in actual fact a contrast to Spain which everyone is talking about. That [Spain] match was our worst performance statistically.”
A record-breaking goal#OnThisDay a year ago, @HKane became the first #ThreeLions player to score in every game of a qualifying campaign! pic.twitter.com/xAiuix51dS
— England (@England) November 17, 2020
Southgate added: “There were other things we did well that night [against Spain], we played with great endeavour and we counter-attacked really well, but the perception of that game is not the reality.
“As a coaching team we have to look at if you perform to those levels [like we did against Spain] every week, you lose games. If you perform to the game we did against Belgium, you’ll win games.
“So it’s a fascinating debate because the perception after a defeat, there’s always a narrative and a story. Whichever way we play there will be strengths and weaknesses to the team.
“We need to find the best path, keep improving it, but [three at the back] can be a system that has flexibility, can be adaptable based on the profile of the players.
“That’s what we’ve done for the last few games and then we’ll get to this end of this camp and review everything before March.”
Comparing the performances
England racked up 16 shots against Belgium compared to only five versus Spain, according to Opta data.
Nine of those attempts came from inside the box in Belgium, but only three of their efforts ended up on target, the same total as their miserable haul in Seville.
England therefore paid the price for poor finishing, but Southgate was right to suggest they were a much greater attacking threat.
10 – This was England’s 10th defeat in 48 matches under Gareth Southgate, making him the first manager to lose 10 matches with the Three Lions since Sven-Goran Eriksson, who lost 10 of his 67 games in charge. Setback. pic.twitter.com/xa7PhmNnsl
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 15, 2020
The Three Lions also had much more of the ball against Belgium – 55 per cent compared to just 27 per cent in the Spain win.
They also attempted over double the amount of passes (589 to 283) and achieved a greater accuracy (87 per cent to 77).
As well as with the attacking and creative data, Southgate also seems to be vindicated with a look at the defensive numbers. England restricted Belgium to eight shots and only three of those were on target.
Despite beating Spain, England allowed 24 attempts on their goal with six on target.
England’s best formation
While Southgate countered the suggestion a back four would be more suitable and talked up the virtues of the current approach, the data is less kind to him when it comes to formations.
Eight of England’s 10 defeats since he took charge have come from only 22 games when playing three at the back.
Twenty-four matches with four in defence have resulted in 17 wins, five draws and only two losses. Two games with five at the back, meanwhile, both ended in draws.