Three Lions yet to roar in Nations League campaign

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On10th October, Belgium and Manchester City maestro Kevin De Bruyne claimed that England should be looked on as favourites for the coming European Championships and World Cup. Just two days later, England beat Belgium by two goals to one to top their group in the Nations League.

Defeating the number one ranked team would have provided much relief and optimism for Gareth Southgate and an England squad that has been criticised for breezing past weak teams, only to fall short against stronger opposition, such as Croatia in the World Cup and the Netherlands in their previous Nations League campaign.

And then, in true England fashion, the Three Lions finished this set of Nation league fixtures by losing 1-0 to Denmark, sliding down to third position and showing that lessons from the previous fixtures were not being learnt.

Despite the impressive scoreline, England’s performance against Belgium highlighted similar issues that have been seen prior. The first half saw them for the most part outplayed by Roberto Martinez’s side, with the three-man central defence constantly raising the question about leaving a lack of creativity in the midfield.

Domestic form throughout October and November will be crucial for the following set of Nation League games next month.

The Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips partnership felt flat and lacklustre in the disappointing goalless draw against Denmark last September, and it was not until the second half that England’s midfield played with more dynamism against Belgium, with Chelsea golden boy Mason Mount’s deflected shot granting the win to the Three Lions. It was Rice and Phillips who were picked again against Denmark last week, and whilst Harry Maguire’s early sending off did not help matters, England created very little against a stubborn Danish defence.

This lack of creativity will worry England fans considering the manager has a squad that provides a selection headache that many could only hope for. Despite missing the exciting prospects of Phil Foden, Mason Greenwood and Tammy Abraham over Covid-19 breaches of conduct, Southgate has an arsenal of in-form England players.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin sits at the top of the European Golden Shoe race with seven goals and put in an impressive display alongside Marcus Rashford against Belgium, whilst Tottenham’s Harry Kane returned to the starting eleven versus Denmark. Danny Ings, who like Calvert-Lewin scored in the friendly against Wales, was surplus to requirements.

Southgate urged his players to ‘grab their place’ in the face of such competition within the squad, and therefore one would imagine domestic form throughout October and November will be crucial for the following set of Nations League games next month.

This competition for places extends beyond the forward line with Southgate still yet to find the perfect formula in defence. England looked unbalanced against Belgium with no left-footed outfield players, and so whilst Kieran Trippier was his ever-solid self against both sides and Reece James was one of the brightest players on the pitch against Denmark, the imminent arrival of £50 million-pound Ben Chilwell could see changes made to the squad.

As for the three-man central defence, Conor Coady, who impressed against Wales and kept his composure against Denmark despite Maguire’s sudden absence, has placed himself as a serious contender for the starting eleven, while Joe Gomez will certainly be hoping to find a spot for himself in the November fixtures.

As for Southgate himself, it is clear to see that the Nations League is providing him with a fantastic opportunity to experiment with this exciting group of players. Whilst he flirted with a four-back formation against Iceland, it would seem that a wingback system is preferred.

This competition provides the perfect springboard for England to be a serious competitor in 2021 and 2022.

England fans can expect numerous rotations within the starting eleven, with domestic form and fitness being crucial over the coming months. Southgate will be hoping to put behind this set of drab performances and will look for a more attacking impetus from the midfield.

The decision to leave Aston Villa skipper Jack Grealish on the bench since his man of the match performance against Wales has raised questions over how he will fit into this system. With Phil Foden potentially returning to the squad and Mason Mount finding a run of form, it will be interesting to see how these young playmakers can impose themselves on a midfield that also requires the understated skills of players like Jordan Henderson.

The Three Lions are yet to roar in this Nations League campaign. Whilst the Belgium victory was a significant result, critics will be quick to highlight the inconsistencies both within and between England performances. Optimists will say the result showed glimpses that Southgate has made a squad that even when not at their best can scrap it out against the elite teams when required.

Yet England fans would hope that Southgate would show less respect towards Belgium and Iceland in November and play with more dynamism and creativity that this exciting group of England players certainly possess.

For many England fans a successful national team is long overdue, and whilst silverware beyond the Nations League is the ideal goal, this competition provides the perfect springboard for England to be a serious competitor in 2021 and 2022. England are still in control of their Nation league hopes, but with must-win games waiting for the Three Lions in November, there is little room for error.

Image: Wiliam Brawley via Flickr

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