Rarely has a manager been simultaneously faced with the situation of elimination from one competition and considered one of the favorites in another. This is where England find themselves heading into the World Cup final kicking off in November, a curious mix of trying to salvage a faltering UEFA Nations League campaign while gearing up for the biggest show on Earth.
Of course, the Nations League pales in comparison to what awaits us in Qatar, but England’s position at the bottom of League A Group 3 hints at a consistently unsatisfactory level of play that raises questions that Gareth Southgate needs to find answers to now.
Nadir certainly came in mid-June, when England suffered their worst home defeat in 97 years, losing 4-0 to Hungary in front of an indifferent Molineux crowd, thousands of whom were singing “You don’t know what you’re doing.” and “You’ll be fired in the morning” in shell-shocked Southgate.
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It happened to a much changed roster at the end of a long season, with many clearly exhausted players, but public opinion was unreserved and fierce. After 28 players gathered at St George’s Park on Monday for the upcoming Nations League fixtures against Italy and Germany, midfielder Jack Grealish called the reaction “very harsh” to a manager who has seen steady and undeniable progress during nearly six years of his leadership.
England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup before losing a third-place play-off to Belgium, finishing third in the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and second in last year’s postponed Euro 2020 final.
Fourth, third, second. The next step is clear. But for Southgate to deliver its first national trophy in 56 years, there are a few issues that need to be addressed during this international break as players battle for a place in its latest 26-man squad.
Who plays in central midfield?
This is perhaps the crux of the mystery of England. The central midfield axis of Calvin Phillips and Declan Rice gave England the stability and protection to start moving towards last year’s Euro 2020 final. However, none of them are particularly dynamic passers and they can’t control the game like, say, Jorginho from Italy or Marco Verratti. Both of these players won the final against England at Wembley and it’s a familiar problem: in the 2019 Nations League semi-final it was Frenkie De Jong of the Netherlands, in 2018 it was Luka Modric of Croatia, in 2012 it was Italy’s Andrea Pirlo.
There was often a passing master ready to expose England’s inability to hold the ball in big knockout games. Phillips is ineligible for the tournament due to a shoulder problem that may require surgery. Jude Bellingham is still showing great promise at Borussia Dortmund and the hype around his inclusion in Qatar will grow if he performs well against Italy and Germany. It’s a big request for the 19-year-old with just six England caps to his credit, but his arrival would mark a genuine evolution in the team from last summer.
Is Southgate bold enough?
Southgate’s inherent caution is understandable. Mindful that England simply don’t have the metronomic midfield presence of Modric or De Jong, Southgate has built a compact squad that emphasizes the importance of cohesion and diligence off the ball. This led to accusations of being too conservative, given the wealth of attacking opportunities at his disposal.
Southgate is right, of course, that any top team needs balance and can’t have six forwards in any game, but there is a feeling that the brake could be applied a little less hard to unlock England’s full potential. It’s hard to blame a manager who has achieved success in a tournament within a penalty shoot-out for the first time in more than five decades, but for a while his performances were underwhelming, and these Nations League games are an opportunity to change that. The selection of at least 12 defenders on his last team was bewildering in this context.
Major players out of shape or injured
Harry Maguire was lucky to be in the England team. He only did so thanks to Southgate’s continued loyalty to a player whose decline at Manchester United has been sharp and drastic. Maguire is a mainstay of England’s defense and with games in short supply at Old Trafford, he needs to take the chance to solidify his position next week.
Southgate was never fully convinced by Trent Alexander-Arnold, and he can easily take that view given the depth of the right-back and right-back at his disposal. Alexander-Arnold is phenomenally talented with the ball, but his performances at Liverpool are constantly accompanied by defensive errors. Jordan Pickford is ahead of Aaron Ramsdale in the race for first place in the England team, but this time the first one is out due to a hip problem. Since there are no warm-up matches immediately before the start of the tournament, Ramsdale has a chance to build rapport between goaltender and defense.
Grealish, another Southgate sweeper, has been candid about his lack of form this season, but was drafted ahead of Jadon Sancho and should be the top player after a year under Pep Guardiola. Left-back is another place to be determined: Luke Shaw, who excelled last summer struggling with form and injury, while Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell returns to the team for the first time since November after knee surgery.
Where do goals come from?
The short answer here would be Harry Kane, and given he had a better August than many earlier at Tottenham, few would bet against him shooting at Qatar. But England have not scored a field goal in their last four games since a 3-0 win over Côte d’Ivoire in March and lacked the cohesiveness they best displayed at Southgate. No team has scored more than 39 goals for England in World Cup qualification, but 24 of them have come in four matches against San Marino and Andorra.
Raheem Sterling has been a vital player for Southgate over the last 18 months and is a solid starter alongside Kane, but third up front if England go 3-4-3 (more on that below) is at the top. for grips with options Grealish, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jarrod Bowen in this last command. The role of Kane’s understudy is also unclear, with Brentford’s Ivan Tony given the chance to claim a late call, though Roma’s Tammy Abraham will feel his position is forfeited.
What formation is the most effective?
To Southgate’s credit, he brought much more tactical flexibility to England during his tenure, so much so that there is now a feverish debate about how best to line up. He favored a three-man defense, whether it be 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, in many big matches to give England a stronger foundation, switching to 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 vs. opponents against whom they expect to have more ball, generally speaking.
Three months ago, however, England used a back four in Germany. It was a decision that was like a manager demonstrating his willingness to take risks, but as a result, his team became less secure. Versatility is very useful, but it’s just as important to determine the best system for England players, and these two matches provide one last chance to experiment in a competitive format.