Kyle Walker on England’s new siege mentality: calm and empathetic

Kyle Walker on England’s new siege mentality: calm and empathetic

“Guys, I’m not reading a single word of your copy but keep writing, you’re doing well. Keep going. Cheers!” This was not a direct quote from Kyle Walker as he signed off in typically cheery fashion from a chat with the UK press before England’s Group C Euro 2024 match against Denmark on Thursday. But it was not far off and absolutely the thrust of things.

There has been the temptation to wonder whether there is a siege mentality taking hold within the England setup. Put yourself in the players’ shoes, especially the 13 who were a part of a tournament ­match-day squad for the first time on ­Sunday when England opened with a 1-0 win against Serbia, ­experiencing the ­craziness of it all. And the subsequent ­reaction.

It was intense, the analysis of every detail forensic – as it always is. Why did Harry Kane hardly touch the ball in the first half? Is Trent ­Alexander-Arnold the answer in midfield? What is going on with Phil Foden? Whisper it, is Jude Bellingham trying to do too much? To repeat: England won 1-0.

It has emerged that Gareth ­Southgate addressed the squad on Tuesday night to explain, as he put it, how this was a “different world” to the one the players normally inhabit. “It’s very rare at their clubs they’d win a game and experience what they’ve experienced over the last couple of days,” the manager said.

This is England. And yet this is not a siege mentality. A siege mentality in the classic sense involves pulling the shutters down, saying nothing in public or some ­aggressively ­defiant stuff at best. Think of the masters such as Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho.

A siege mentality does not involve good relationships with the journalists, being calm and friendly, giving insightful interviews and seeming to enjoy them. Maybe call it a Southgate siege mentality: ­measured, plenty of understanding and empathy.

There is nonetheless an impression that the squad is a little bemused by the fallout from the Serbia game and is pulling together, looking to the leaders – including Walker – for guidance.

At 34, Walker is the ­senior statesman. He is in his fifth tour­nament. He has 84 caps; only Kane from this squad has more with 92. Walker has admitted he had to be talked out of international retirement by ­Southgate after the ­previous two tournaments but he made it clear here that he wanted to go on for some time.

Jude Bellingham celebrates after scoring against Serbia with Kieran TrippierView image in fullscreen

“I look at Pepe playing for Portugal and he is 41 … the likes of Luka Modric [who is 38],” Walker said. “They’re the levels people are setting. If they can do it, why can’t I? What is my timescale for how long I want to go on? How long’s a piece of string? A lot of people do bang on about my age but age is just a number to me. I still feel quick, I still feel strong, I still feel young. And even at my age I still want to learn.”

Walker was interesting when he addressed the noise outside the England camp; how he deals with it. And it is no great stretch to ­imagine him preaching to others what he practises.

“I don’t have anything [in terms of social media], I don’t look at anything,” the vice-captain said.

“I feel that I’m in here and this is the only little bubble. When you start listening to outside noise or good press and bad press, it affects different people in different ways. If you were to write good things or bad things about me … if I don’t read it, I don’t react and don’t change my ­opinion on what I’m going to approach a game like.

“I concentrate on what’s in this camp. What the manager says, what the people around me and teammates are saying. When we get that ­scrutiny after beating a well‑drilled Serbia team 1-0, we have to take it as a positive in that people expect so much of us. But we cannot take away that we came away with three points, a clean sheet and in a good stead for Denmark.”

Southgate also said that he was not “reading a thing or listening to a thing”, although he is aware of the various discussion points “because they get sent to you”. What he wanted to impart was his considered view on the Serbia match, having had the time to pore over it, and how it would inform the approach against Denmark.

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Southgate liked the way England kept and moved the ball in the first 30 minutes, the period defined by ­Bellingham’s goal. He also talked up the impact his substitutes made – Conor Gallagher, Jarrod Bowen and Kobbie Mainoo.

He did not like the low levels of chance creation, even during the initial purple patch, and how his team came to lack the correct structure to build the play, the right overloads. It was a part of why they lacked control, seemingly inviting Serbia on.

“The other reason was individual errors with the ball,” Southgate said. “Poor detail on passes. We have challenged everybody to take that next step.”

Southgate said that Alexander-Arnold was not going to be a midfielder “who dictates tempo” like, say, Modric or Toni Kroos. But he continues to believe that the Liverpool player could open up compact defences with the range of his passing. Without the ball, he has been open to taking on the responsibilities required.

“We know it’s a work in progress,” Southgate said. “We know it’s something that’s going to get a lot of attention as it’s not been the norm. But we feel it’s something that can add to what we’ve got.”

Southgate was fiercely protective of Foden but he perhaps lowered his guard momentarily when ­discussing Bellingham. “He definitely got 90 minutes of running into 45; I think the occasion, the emotion, scoring …” Southgate said. It was as though he felt Bellingham had been too all‑action in some of the wrong areas.

“I mean, he had a phenomenal impact on the game and the great thing is that he is really coachable,” Southgate said. “We can sit and talk things through. We’ve got to get the right balance of not losing what he’s already bringing. And also, can we sow one or two things – as with all the players – that we can refine and get even more from him? That’s always the challenge.”

Southgate has plenty of them.