Image: Wikimedia Commons / Кирилл Венедиктов
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Кирилл Венедиктов

Changes are needed, but Southgate still the right person for England

England’s national football team is forever a topic of heated discussion in this country. For the past 50 years, fans and pundits alike seem to draw the same conclusion from England performances – ‘we just aren’t quite good enough, are we?’.

In this time, we have found ourselves so close to elusive glory (think Euro 96 and THAT penalty miss). However, we have found ourselves so very far from any kind of success (the horror show at Euro 2016 against Iceland springs to mind).

Right now, we are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. England are not at their exhilarating best, nor are they at their abject worst. We are just, ‘meh’. Average, unimaginative and boring – just three adjectives that describe the two English performances in Nations League games in the past week. The first, a dull 1-0 victory over the ‘old enemy’ – no not Germany, Iceland of course. The second, and even more stale (remarkably) goalless draw with Denmark.

England manager, Gareth Southgate, is starting to feel the pressure. At the moment, at his disposal, we have a generation of fantastic young talent, especially in attack. Players like Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden are world-renowned for their raw talent. Mix their quality with the extra experience of the elite Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, and you have one of the best attacking national squads the world.

The fact that we could only muster one goal is seriously worrying

Yet, even with five out of the six players mentioned above playing in at least one of the games this week, the fact that we could only muster one goal is seriously worrying. Even that was from the penalty spot.

Some people have been quick to blame Southgate’s tactics. His ultra-conservative approach does seem excessive. In the Denmark game, for example, England started with three centre-backs and two central defensive midfielders. There are problems with this.

Firstly, playing two defensive midfielders, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice in this instance is unnecessary. One would suffice, alongside a more attacking-minded player to give us extra creativity. Secondly, playing 3 centre-backs means the wing-backs are allowed to get forward at will.

However, not selecting a recognised left-back in the whole squad meant that right-footed Kieran Trippier was made to fill in. This meant that much of the time, the ball came back inside instead of being advanced and crossed from the left-wing.

England certainly need more creativity. Both performances this week were sterile, cautious and slow – not the characteristics of a side who are being considered as genuine competitors at Euro 2021. We do have these players at our disposal, however – recognised ‘Number 10s’ include Foden, Jack Grealish and James Maddison, all of whom have proven their credentials in the Premier League. Why not sacrifice a little bit of defensive stability for more attacking flair? The results suggest that this adjustment is a necessity.

The past week has not been the smoothest for the England squad

However, in Southgate’s defence, the past week has not been the smoothest for the England squad. Firstly, England’s team is dramatically weaker than it could be due to injuries. Players I have mentioned like Maddison and Rashford, who would make a huge difference, have been unable to play. The same situation has occurred at left-back, with no high-quality players fit for selection for Southgate.

Secondly, due to the dysfunctional effects of a global pandemic, these competitive internationals have really been played during ‘pre-season’. Players have not had the opportunity to train or play much at all. This could obviously be argued to affect performance.

However, this is a questionable argument. You just have to look at Belgium’s team whose players are similarly playing in their ‘pre-season’. They managed to put five past Iceland just days after England scrapped a fortunate win against the same opponent.

Thirdly, two of England’s brightest creative talents, Greenwood and Foden, were dismissed after the Iceland game, following a breach of Covid-19 protocol. This, like the two problems mentioned above, was totally outside of Gareth Southgate’s control – and he deserves our sympathy considering this.

Everyone involved has a lot of learning to do and we cannot be impatient with their progress

I am not trying to make excuses for England. The performances were undoubtedly inexcusable, and future performances have to be more adventurous, creative and forward-thinking. However, this is a young English team with a young English manager.

Everyone involved has a lot of learning to do and we cannot be impatient with their progress. Our peak time will come at one tournament in the near future – it might not be Euro 2021, nor even the World Cup in 2022, but it will come.

And when our time does come, we need our England team to be ready to perform to the very best of their ability. To ensure this we need to give them our support, our faith and our time.

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