Rarely has a manager faced the simultaneous situation of relegation from one competition while being considered among the favourites for another. This is where England find themselves in their final gathering before the World Cup finals start in November, a curious juxtaposition of trying to salvage a faltering UEFA Nations League campaign while getting ready for the biggest show on Earth.
Of course, the Nations League pales into insignificance compared with what is to come in Qatar, but England’s position at the bottom of League A Group 3 hints at a persistently underwhelming level of performance which raises questions that Gareth Southgate needs to find answers to now.
The nadir undoubtedly came in mid-June when England slumped to their worst home defeat in 97 years, a 4-0 loss to Hungary in front of an unimpressed Molineux crowd, thousands of whom sang “you don’t know what you’re doing” and “you’re getting sacked in the morning” at a shellshocked Southgate.
It came with a much-changed lineup at the end of a long season, with many visibly exhausted players, but the public judgement was unmitigated and brutal. After 28 players assembled at St George’s Park on Monday for upcoming Nations League games against Italy and Germany, midfielder Jack Grealish described that reaction as “very harsh” on a manager who has overseen steady and undeniable progress during his near six years in charge.
England reached the 2018 World Cup semifinals before losing the third-place playoff to Belgium, finished 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 for Southgate to deliver the nation’s first trophy in 56 years, there are several issues to resolve during this international break as players scramble 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 Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice gave England the stability and protection to embark on a run to last year’s Euro 2020 final. However, neither is a particular dynamic passer of the ball and they cannot control games in the manner of, say, Italy’s Jorginho or Marco Verratti. Both those players took the final away from England at Wembley and it is a familiar problem: in 2019’s Nations League semifinal it was Netherlands’ Frenkie De Jong, in 2018 it was Croatia‘s Luka Modric, in 2012 it was Italy’s Andrea Pirlo.
There has often been a pass master ready to expose England’s inability to keep possession in the big knockout games. Phillips is a doubt for the tournament with a shoulder problem which may require surgery. Jude Bellingham continues to emerge with huge promise at Borussia Dortmund and the clamour for his inclusion in Qatar will grow if he performs well against Italy and Germany. It is a big ask of a 19-year-old with just six England starts to his name but his emergence would represent a genuine evolution in the team from last summer.
Is Southgate bold enough?
Southgate’s inherent caution is understandable. Mindful that England simply do not possess a metronomic midfield presence like Modric or De Jong, Southgate has constructed a compact team accentuating the importance of togetherness and diligence without the ball. That has 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 game, but there is a sense the brake could be applied a little less rigorously to unleash England’s full potential. It is hard to fault a manager who came within a penalty shootout of delivering tournament success for the first time in more than five decades, but performances have been underwhelming for a while and these Nations League games are an opportunity to shift the needle. Picking no fewer than 12 defenders in his latest squad raised some eyebrows in this context.
Big players out of form or injured
Harry Maguire is lucky to be in this England squad. He only made it because of Southgate’s enduring loyalty to a player whose decline at Manchester United has been stark and sharp. Maguire is England’s defensive lynchpin and with games in short supply at Old Trafford, he needs to seize his chance to reinforce that position in the next week.
Southgate has never been entirely convinced by Trent Alexander-Arnold, a view he can more easily accommodate given the depth of right-back and right wing-back options at his disposal. Alexander-Arnold is a phenomenal talent in possession but his Liverpool performances have been consistently laced with defensive errors. Jordan Pickford is just ahead of Aaron Ramsdale in the race to be England’s No. 1 but the former is missing this time with a thigh problem. With no warm-up matches immediately before the tournament begins, the chance to cement that understanding between goalkeeper and defence falls to Ramsdale.
Grealish, another yet to entirely win Southgate over, has been candid about his lack of form so far this season but was selected ahead of Jadon Sancho and should be a better player for a year’s tutelage from Pep Guardiola. Left-back is another spot to be decided with Luke Shaw, who excelled last summer, struggling with form and injury, while Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell returns to the squad for the first time since November following knee surgery.
Ivan Toney shares his pride after being called up to the England senior squad for the Nations League matches against Italy and Germany.
Where are the goals coming from?
Harry Kane would be the short answer here and given he’s had a better August than many previously at Tottenham, few would bet against him firing in Qatar. But England have not scored from open play in their last four matches, dating back to March’s 3-0 win over Ivory Coast, and have lacked the cohesion shown at their best under Southgate. No team scored more than England’s 39 goals in World Cup qualifying, but 24 of those came in four matches against minnows San Marino and Andorra.
Raheem Sterling has been a vital player for Southgate in the last 18 months and is a nailed-on starter alongside Kane but the third attacking position, if England play a variation of 3-4-3 (more of that below), is up for grabs with Grealish, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jarrod Bowen options in this latest squad. The back-up role to Kane is also uncertain, with Brentford‘s Ivan Toney given a chance to stake a late claim, although Roma’s Tammy Abraham will feel it is his position to lose.
Which formation is most effective?
It is to Southgate’s credit that he has injected much greater tactical versatility into England during his tenure, so much so in fact that there is now fevered debate over how best to line up. He has favoured a three-man defence, whether in a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 shape, in many big matches, to give England a more solid footing, switching to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 versus opponents against whom they expect to have more of the ball, generally speaking.
However, England used a back four in Germany three months ago. It was a decision which felt like a manager showing his willingness to take risks, but his team were more defensively porous as a result. Versatility is highly useful but so is identifying the best system for England’s players and these two matches offer the last chance to experiment in a competitive format.