England laboured to a 0-0 draw against Scotland on Friday, in a performance that throws up huge questions surrounding the Three Lions' inability to create from open play.
The usually change-averse Southgate made two changes from the Croatia win, with Reece James and Luke Shaw coming in for Kyle Walker – who did not make the 23 - and Kieran Trippier. In the opening win, Walker and Trippier's brief appeared to be conservative. The selection of James and Shaw suggested Southgate wanted his team to be more on the front foot. However, it did not pan out like that with Scotland largely comfortable for large swathes.
There had been talk pre-match that Scotland may attempt to soak up some early pressure but they began with an intensity that set the tone for much of the match. Scotland took control of the midfield area and England were flat – but was that a function of Scotland’s intensity or England’s lethargy?
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It was the now familiar 4-2-3-1, with Mings and Stones, who were rarely troubled against a rudderless Croatia team, up against a front two of Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes, with presser extraordinaire John McGinn buzzing around in front of them. Scotland’s three-man defence, coupled with a five-man midfield allowed Steve Clarke’s men to suffocate both England’s midfield and attack, and the hosts struggled to exert any control over the match.
BIG WINNER – Jack Grealish
England need a creator who will dictate the rhythm of a match. Until the introduction of Grealish, Southgate’s men lacked a creative leader in the advanced midfield positions. Perhaps the issue is none of Mason Mount, Phil Foden or Raheem Sterling are the creative focal point of their club sides. Grealish is. And to drop into Pep Guardiola vernacular, Grealish showed personality. He demanded and dictated. The clamour for him to start grows by the match
BIG LOSER – Harry Kane
He was up against a three-man defence. However, he cut a forlorn and sluggish figure for large swathes of the game. It was illustrative of his performance that he was subbed to little surprise with 15 or so to go. He doesn’t look fit, and looked well off the pace.
Pickford – 6 - The Everton goalkeeper got his angles right to make a smart save from O’Donnell in the first half and was solid in set-piece situations
James – 6 - The Champions League winner began brightly in what was his first experience of tournament football, producing one particularly inviting ball for Kane. However, he struggled to get a handle on Scotland’s area of strength, with Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson combining well to pin James back
Stones – 5 - He should have scored with an early free header from a corner. He was solid again, producing one fine block to deny Adams
Mings – 5 - Having looked varying degrees of suspect in the warm-up games, Mings has been an assured presence alongside Stones and handled the presence of Dykes reasonably well.
Shaw – 5 - The Manchester United full-back drove forward with an efficiency that escaped Trippier in the Croatia game. Shaw was solid on the defensive side of the ball, producing one particularly timely intervention as Callum McGregor broke following an England corner.
Phillips – 6 - The Leeds United central midfielder was unable to stamp the same authority on this game as he had in England's opener. However, he produced a lovely pass for Foden to once again evidence his excellent depth of passing.
Rice – 5 - England’s deepest-lying midfielder struggled to establish any kind of dominance in that area with the trifecta of Adams, Dykes and McGinn suppressing any chance of him setting the tempo from deep.
Sterling – 6 - Always a threat and almost fashioned a winner in the dying moments. It is fair to say that he is not in his best form but the creative spark remains.
Mount – 6 - Mount’s merits are beyond debate but while neat and tidy, he offered very little in terms of pure creativity for a player who started – nominally - as a 10 and club colleague Billy Gilmour shackled Mount fairly well
Foden – 5 - Much like his showing against Croatia, the 21-year-old started brightly before fading. He showed some bright movement in behind but was withdrawn on the hour mark, with Grealish on in his stead
Kane – 5 - The Tottenham forward looked sluggish during the pre-match rondo, and he fared little better during a laboured performance.
Grealish – 7 - the clamour for his introduction grew as England laboured, and Wembley was rapturous as he replaced Foden with just past an hour gone. Took on the responsibility to create as soon as he entered the pitch and England were far more threatening for it
Rashford – 6 - Introduced for the underwhelming Kane, and immediately offered more of a threat running the channels diligently and dropping deep where the opportunity arose to direct from deep
Had England stolen a win, a generous reading on this performance would have been that they retained their composure in the face of a ferocious challenge from a fired-up Scotland. As it was they were laboured, tired and sluggish.
At the 2018 World Cup, England were a set-piece team – a functional team fashioning much of their threat, and goals, from set-piece situations. On this showing, they have regressed. They offered little threat in set-piece situations and struggled to create in open play.
England looked a little better when Grealish entered the fray. However, they need one of their advanced midfielders to take on the responsibility for creation.
This game told a sorry story: England, despite a wealth of attacking, technical players, still struggle to create from open play. It is a conundrum that Southgate must solve.
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