Rarely has a manager faced the situation of being simultaneously eliminated from one competition while being considered one of the favorites for another. This is where England find themselves in the final group before the World Cup finals kick off in November, a curious aspect of trying to salvage a faltering UEFA Nations League campaign as they prepare for the biggest show on earth.
Of course, the Nations League pales in comparison to what’s to come in Qatar, but England’s bottom position in League A Group 3 suggests continued underperformance, raising questions Gareth Southgate now needs to find answers to.
The nadir undoubtedly came in mid-June when they suffered their worst defeat in 97 years, a 4-0 loss to Hungary in front of an unimpressed Molineux crowd, thousands chanting “You don’t know what you’re doing”. ” and “You’re fired in the morning” at a shellshocked Southgate.
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It came at the end of a long season with a much-changed lineup, with many visibly tired players, but the general verdict was unmitigated and brutal. After the 28-man squad gathered at St George’s Park on Monday for the upcoming Nations League matches against Italy and Germany, midfielder Jack Grealish described the manager who has overseen a steady and undeniable improvement in his six years in charge as “very tough”.
England finished third in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, losing to Belgium, third in the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and runners-up in last year’s delayed Euro 2020 final.
Fourth, third, second. The next step is clear. But if Southgate is to deliver the nation’s first trophy in 56 years, there are many issues to be resolved during this international break as players battle for a place in his final 26-man squad.
Who plays in central midfield?
This is arguably the essence of the England conundrum. The central-midfield axis of Calvin Phillips and Declan Rice provided stability and security for England to reach the Euro 2020 finals last year. However, neither is a particularly dynamic passer of the ball and cannot control games like Italy’s Jorginho or Marco Verratti. Both of those players from England took the final at Wembley, a familiar problem: Netherlands’ Frenkie de Jong in the 2019 Nations League semi-final, Croatia’s Luka Modric in 2018, Italy’s Andrea Pirlo in 2012.
A pass master is ready to expose England’s inability to play in big knockout games. Phillips is a doubt for the tournament with a shoulder problem that will require surgery. Jude Bellingham continues to show great promise at Borussia Dortmund and if he performs well against Italy and Germany the clamor for his inclusion in Qatar will increase. The 19-year-old’s six-year-old name is a big ask, but his appearance could represent a real evolution in the squad since last summer.
Is Southgate brave enough?
Southgate’s inherent caution is understandable. Remembering that England lack a metronomic midfield presence like Modric or De Jong, Southgate has built a small team that emphasizes the importance of unity and perseverance without the ball. This led to accusations of excessive conservatism, given the wealth of attacking options at his disposal.
Southgate is right, or course, that any top side needs balance, and he can’t throw in six forwards for any given game, but he can use the brakes a little less to unleash England’s full potential. It’s hard to blame a manager who came through a penalty shootout to deliver a tournament win for the first time in more than five decades, but performances have been low for a while and these Nations League games are a chance to shift the needle. His selection of fewer than 12 defenders in his latest squad has raised some eyebrows in this context.
Big players were either out of form or injured
Harry Maguire is lucky to be included in this England squad. He did this only because of Southgate’s enduring loyalty to a player whose fall was stark and sharp at Manchester United. Maguire is England’s defensive lynchpin and with games limited at Old Trafford, he should take his chance to strengthen that position next week.
Southgate was never fully trusted by Trent Alexander-Arnold, who could easily accommodate given the depth of right-back and right-back options at his disposal. Alexander-Arnold is a unique talent in possession but his Liverpool performances have been linked to constant defensive errors. Jordan Pickford is just ahead of Aaron Ramsdale in the race to become England’s No.1 but the former is missing this season with a hamstring problem. With no practice games immediately before the start of the match, the opportunity falls to Ramsdale to cement the understanding between the goalkeeper and the defence.
Grealish, another who hasn’t completely won over Southgate, has been honest about his lack of form so far this season, but was picked ahead of Jadon Sancho and should be the best player for Pep Guardiola’s year in charge. Left-back is another spot to be decided with Luke Shaw, who excelled last summer, while Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell returns to the team for the first time in November following knee surgery.
Ivan Toney has shared his pride after being called up to England’s senior squad for the Nations League matches against Italy and Germany.
Where do goals come from?
Harry Kane will be the short answer here, and having had a better August than most at Tottenham before, few would bet against him firing in Qatar. But England have not scored in open play in their last four matches, including a 3-0 win over Ivory Coast in March, and have lacked the cohesion shown at their best under Southgate. No team has scored more than England’s 39 goals in World Cup qualifying, but 24 of those goals came in four matches against San Marino and Andorra.
Raheem Sterling has been a key player for Southgate over the past 18 months and is a reliable starter alongside Kane, but there is a third attacking position if England play a variant 3-4-3 (more on that below). Grabs with the likes of Grealish, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jarrod Bowen in this latest squad. Kane’s back-up role is also uncertain, with Brentford’s Ivan Toni given a chance to stake a late claim, although Roma’s Tommy Abraham will feel he will miss out.
Which formulation is most effective?
Southgate has instilled greater tactical versatility in England during his tenure, and there is now fierce debate about exactly how to deploy. He favored a three-man defense in a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation in many big matches, switching to a 4-2-3-1 or 4 to give England a more solid base. -3-3 and expect them to have more of the ball against the opposition.
However, England used a back four in Germany three months ago. It was a decision that felt like a manager willing to take a risk, but as a result his team was too defensively thin. Diversity is beneficial, but identifying the best set-up for England’s players, these two tournaments offer the last chance to experiment with a competitive format.