Last Wednesday, like many an England fan around the country, I sat down in front of the TV armed with my takeaway, a beer, and unbounded optimism. In the days before, England had smashed rivals Wales 3-0, and backed it up by beating the team ranked number one in the world, Belgium. Denmark should be a walk in the park, right?
Unlike many an England fan around the country, I resisted the urge to turn my TV off at half time. A Harry Maguire horror show, a goal conceded from a dubious free kick, and a lacklustre England side that didn’t look like scoring made for grim viewing. The second half was no better, the Three Lions at least saw out the last 45 minutes without conceding again, but fully deserved their 1-0 home defeat.
Scrolling through Twitter after the game, #SouthgateOut popped up on my feed quite a few times. Surely one bad defeat against Denmark isn’t justification to sack the manager who took us to our best World Cup finish since Italia 90, I thought. Imagine the fallout if Jürgen Klopp had been sacked at Liverpool after their 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa.
Looking back on England’s matches post-lockdown, they’ve flattered to deceive at times. Against Iceland England dominated possession, seeing 77% of the ball but lacking cutting edge. Raheem Sterling’s penalty gave England the lead in the first minute of second half stoppage time, before Birkir Bjarnason blazed his last-minute spot kick over the bar. A little rustiness could be forgiven though, given it had been 290 days since their last match, a 4-0 win against Kosovo back in November 2019.
The Iceland game was followed by a drab 0-0 draw with Denmark in which England once again created few chances, barring a Harry Kane effort cleared off the line in the dying seconds. Hardly inspiring football.
Despite this, the results don’t lie. England secured comfortable qualification for what is now Euro 2021, winning seven of their eight games on their way to a group topping finish. Only Belgium and Italy had better points per game ratios. Even in the Nations League England have seven points from their four games, a better record than European heavyweights such as Italy, Germany and World Cup finalists Croatia. The Three Lions remain well in touch of Belgium for the top spot and a place at the Nations League Finals.
So why have the recent games been drawing criticism for Gareth Southgate? In part it’s down to a change in formation. Southgate has been using a 3-4-3 formation, often with two defensive midfielders, which has been accused of being overly conservative. England fans see their team in the same bracket as European greats like France and Germany, so playing five at the back against sides they would be expected to beat is seen as them offering too much respect to their opposition.
Looking back on their Euro Qualifiers, England often went for a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 formation. The last two matches they used those formations resulted in swashbuckling attacking displays, winning 7-0 and 4-0 against Montenegro and Kosovo. Fans want to see that same attacking team selection against teams higher up the rankings.
Another issue is that of ill-discipline, both on and off the field. England had two players sent off against Denmark, Harry Maguire for two clumsy yellows and Reece James, who was otherwise impressive, for some choice words to the referee at the end of the game. Kyle Walker also saw red against Iceland for a rash challenge when already on a yellow card.
Another issue of the modern game is the strict adherence to Covid-19 protocols. Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden fell foul of the rules whilst in Reykjavik, being sent home from the squad for breaking the bio-secure bubble. 36 hours before the Wales friendly Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho were all pictured at a birthday party, having clearly not learnt from their fellow teammates’ mistakes.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a discussion about England’s problems without mentioning the search for a reliable number one. Most of the other top European countries have a world class keeper, think Manuel Neuer for Germany, Thibaut Courtois for Belgium, or Hugo Lloris for France.
Southgate has unwaveringly supported Jordan Pickford despite constant pressure for the mistakes he tends to make, but it must now be time for another keeper to be given a chance. Burnley’s Nick Pope and Manchester United’s Dean Henderson are the two most quoted choices, though Henderson is very much the second-choice goalkeeper at Old Trafford. A more rogue option is Newcastle’s second choice goalkeeper Karl Darlow, who has made the most saves in the Premier League since Martin Dubravka’s injury.
It seems bad for Gareth then, tactics that aren’t working, discipline problems and no reliable goalkeeper. #Southgateout after all? I still disagree.
Gareth Southgate is overseeing a major change in the English national team. For years, the squad would be picked based on reputation. This led to an aging team full of players who were past their prime, and who failed at major tournaments. Southgate has started to pick younger players, giving the ‘golden generation’ of players responsible for recent U20 and U17 World Cup wins a chance to prove themselves in the first team.
The likes of Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden are providing flair and creativity to England’s attacking options, while young Liverpool stars Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez are breaking through into the England defensive line-up.
There is also more of an effort to pick form players too. Connor Coady made his England debut against Denmark having been ever present for Wolves in the league, he last missed a league match for Wolves in September 2017. Danny Ings received his second cap five years after his debut following consistent scoring records in the Premier League with Southampton, and Domenic Calvert-Lewin simply couldn’t be left out of the squad after starting this season as top scorer in Europe’s big five leagues.
Gareth Southgate has given debuts to 40 players in his 4 years as England manager so far, so it’s only natural it will take some time for new players to gel. He has another eight months yet to settle on his preferred tactic and starting line-up before the Euros. I hope that happens sooner rather than later, I’m not sure my sanity can cope with too many more dismal England performances. I firmly believe though, that come June 11th 2021, England will have a team of young guns and experienced stars to stake a real claim for the trophy under Southgate’s leadership. Let’s hope I’m not proved wrong.
Image: John Ray via Flickr