Gareth Southgate appeared to have everything under control. A good atmosphere, the right noises coming out of his press conferences, a group of young players that the nation could get behind.
And then the unthinkable happened. Euro 2020 was pushed back a year, paving the way for a new wave of talented youngsters to muscle in on his squad.
For the first time in a long while, England’s team doesn’t pick itself. And that’s proving to be an issue for Southgate, who rebuilt his reputation not with tactics but by restoring the connect between the national squad and the supporters. Sure, he’s overseen improvements on the pitch, notably with his 3-5-2 system propelling England to within a whisker of the World Cup final, but it’s started to become a bit stale again as he struggles to capitalise on his new stars.
Southgate faces a series of dilemmas before next summer’s country-hopping extravaganza, which culminates in the semi-finals and final at Wembley Stadium. Whether England make it that far will depend on him getting these right.
Southgate: Grealish 'outstanding' in England loss to Belgium
PICKFORD: IN OR OUT?
The trajectory of an England goalkeeper: impress, nail down No.1 shirt, make a mistake, criticism mounts, errors increase, exile. Only a few escape the cycle.
Jordan Pickford is marooned between ‘criticism mounts’ and ‘errors increase’. Nick Pope and Dean Henderson are the two alternatives and on goalkeeping ability alone, one of them should have already replaced Pickford.
But Pickford has something his rivals don’t: reliable kicking. Providing that doesn’t fail him, Southgate will be reluctant to lose such a good asset, even if it hasn’t necessarily translated into chances and goals in recent matches.
Still, the Everton man has to cut out the mistakes before next summer and rebuild his confidence. Nothing puts a defence at unease quite like a wild goose behind them.
WHO ARE THE CENTRE-BACKS?
If this international break has taught us anything, it’s that you can have too many right-backs.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were all called up for the latest round of games, although the first two eventually withdrew.
Anyway, none of those trusted to play have impressed particularly. Either Southgate has to tweak the system to play to the attacking strengths of (the now injured) Alexander-Arnold or play a flat-back four with Walker or potentially Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Sadly, being spoilt for choice doesn’t extend to the centre-backs. Joe Gomez is crocked, John Stones doesn’t play anymore and Harry Maguire lurches from mistake to headed redemption to mistake again. In Tyrone Mings, England have at least one in-form centre-back but they desperately need another after Eric Dier’s shaky display in Belgium.
But some good news for Southgate: Ben Chilwell is nailed on at left-back.
Kevin De Bruyne v Tyrone Mings | Belgium v England
Image credit: Getty Images
There are few more miserable sights in international football than seeing two defensive midfielders on the same team sheet. But with such a brittle defence and promising options further up the pitch, it is a burden England must bear. Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice seem the most suitable duo, freeing up an attacking role in a midfield three for Mason Mount or Phil Foden.
But there’s competition. Kalvin Phillips and Jude Bellingham have emerged as unlikely contenders for a spot in Southgate’s defensive engine room, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may yet come good again. And then there’s Ross Barkley, who can’t compete with a spot alongside either Henderson or Rice for obvious reasons, but could be played at the head of the midfield after his resurgence at Aston Villa.
For so long, this picked itself. In the 3-2 win over Spain in October 2018, we saw Southgate’s attack in full flow: Harry Kane dropping deep, creating space for Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford to break in behind. But it’s unavoidably one-dimensional and, suddenly, there is an alternative option in Jack Grealish.
Grealish, so long fighting just to make the squad, was the best player for England against Belgium. He lacks the pace of Sterling, Rashford and Jadon Sancho, and occasionally dithers on the ball for a split-second too long, but he offers something different. If your best players don’t fit your system, you have to adjust that system. And having a Grealish-Kane-Sterling attack will be far trickier to read, while ensuring you have an outlet in behind that was so missing against the Belgians.
And then there’s Jamie Vardy, retired from international duty but still the Premier League’s most lethal weapon against good teams. When England are penned in deep in Euro 2020, should they make it that far, there’s an argument that Vardy would be a better option than Kane, such is his ability to turn an aimless long ball down the channels into an assist. Failing that, Dominic Calvert-Lewin has emerged as a serious Plan B to Kane, who should not be guaranteed 90 minutes – even with the armband.
Gareth Southgate, Manager of England gives instructions to Jack Grealish of England prior to him being substituted onto the pitch during the UEFA Nations League group stage match between Denmark and England at Parken Stadium on September 08, 2020 in Copen
Image credit: Getty Images
4-3-3? 3-4-3? 4-2-3-1? 3-5-2? So much appears to rest on Southgate finding two centre-backs he can trust. The experiment with three centre-backs seems to only exacerbate the problem – wasting a shirt that could be used further up the pitch.
England are at their best when they have players who are comfortable on the ball and options stretching the defence, so a system with wingers and a substantial midfield seems the most sensible. Therefore, 4-3-3 appears to be the stand-out system.
Suggested XI (4-3-3): Henderson; Chilwell, Maguire, Mings, Walker; Henderson, Rice, Mount; Grealish, Kane, Sterling.