In 2018, the performances of Gareth Southgate’s English national team united fans and pundits alike in sheer passion. Fast forward two years later though, and there is a splitting conversation regarding the recent results for England. Victories against Belgium and Wales are being heralded, but others focus on dire performances against Iceland and Denmark.
The debate must focus away from right backs playing at left back, or arguing over how important the result is over a performance. In 2020, England have scored 6 goals in 5 games, compared to 27 in the 6 before the Iceland game. There are already calls for Southgate to step down. There is a large number of fans who are disappointed by England in 2020.
On the flip side, England have lost just 3 games inside 90 minutes since The World Cup. Believe it or not, they are currently odds on favourites for the Euros in 2021. Sky Bet places them at 9/2, above the likes of Belgium and France. Pundits like Gary Lineker have praised the ability to grind out the win against Belgium.
Behind the headlines, we at EADF believe there are issues within England set up. While there is nothing too fundamental or truly majorly concerning, we have identified a lot of problems plaguing the English national side.
Should we be happy beating the number 1 ranked nation in the world?
Let’s get it right; The victory vs Belgium was a bad performance. It was an unfortunate penalty plus a deflected shot which brought England goals. Belgium had more shots on target, more possession, and looked more threatening. England looked predictable and limited, and that was highlighted in Wednesday’s defeat to Denmark. You could find Kyle Walker, Connor Coady, Kalvin Phillips and Tyrone Mings all on the halfway line, even while England were a goal down and in possession.
This inevitably leads into the subject of Gareth Southgate’s selection. In 2020, England have lined up with a back 5 on every single occasion. In the latest round of fixtures, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were partnered in midfield. This meant that England effectively played with 7 defensive players on the pitch. Is this clever pragmatism, or something more intriguing and complex?
In defence of Gareth Southgate?
There have been several factors that have complicated the selection process for Gareth Southgate. In the past year, Eric Dier has transitioned from a CDM to a CB at Tottenham. Before 2020 and after The World Cup, Eric Dier started 8 times for England. All 8 of those appearances came at CDM. (This was across all The Nations League and friendlies). This means, for Southgate to get Dier into the team, a player he clearly trusts, he must be at CB. This seems to be, so far, only happening in a back 3. Of course, England got to the semi finals of the World Cup with a back 3, so Southgate isn’t opposed to this system. Yet, these recent games have actually been the first time since 2018 that Southgate has reverted to 3 at the back
No matter how many defenders are on the pitch though, there is an even bigger issue causing England to concede goals. Besides Kepa Arrizabalaga, Jordan Pickford had the worst save percentage in the Premier League in 2019/20. Across last season and the beginning of this season, Pickford has committed 8 errors. 5 of these led directly to a goal. This means that Southgate’s previous first-choice keeper has unexpectedly dropped in quality. Infact, Pickford is the most error prone GK in England.
There have been minor issues as well. Ben Chilwell’s recent absence has highlighted the lack of left footed defenders in the team. This has forced Southgate into the unpopular choice of placing Kieran Trippier at left back. Trippier or even Maitland Niles on the left side of England’s shape just transforms it into a place to recycle possession. The right footer can only come inside to receive and pass the ball, usually sideways or backwards. On the subject of player’s preferred feet, England have another issue.
Across the 37 outfield players listed on Transfermarkt under the extended England squad, just 6 players can argue for having a strong left foot. That includes Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho as ‘both footed’. It also includes Danny Rose, someone with barely a fingertip clawed on the England set up. This means that England’s passing angles are more predictable, and it limits creativity and unpredictability.
There is perhaps a more overarching concern beginning to plague the team; there is a clear lack of confidence within some English players. Despite major success in Germany, Jadon Sancho has managed just 2 goals and 4 assists in 14 appearances. In our previous EADF article, we spoke of the importance of getting the best out of Sancho. So far, Southgate has been unsuccessful. The same confidence issue could be applied to Pickford, and now Harry Maguire. His short performance against Denmark highlighted a complete mental collapse for the United defender. With less than a year until the Euros, this is not promising for Southgate.
Feeding the three lions
Gareth Southgate has a huge headache to solve. With these issues piling up, he must find a way to get the best out of the players. Yet as The World Cup and his recent track record suggests, the capability to be pragmatic must remain in the team. A balance of protectionism and creativity must be struck. You cannot afford to risk conceding goals at the cost of trying to simply outscore the opposition.
In goal, Southgate should choose Nick Pope. While he is not an exceedingly fantastic goalkeeper, his error record is exemplary compared to Pickford. 3 errors and 1 penalty committed is a far safer record than Pickford’s 8. (Across 2019-present). However, the progress of Dean Henderson should be tracked.
At CB, Southgate could pick Connor Coady to sit alongside Maguire. While Dier is a trusted player of Southgate, Coady has slotted in well into the England set up. There is a potential problem, as Coady is mostly suited to a back three, so in a back four it remains to be seen how he would cope. Besides that though, Coady’s forward passing is something that cannot be overlooked. Harry Maguire meanwhile, is still England’s best CB, just going through an awful patch of form.
Midfield is where things get interesting. Due to the positional move of Eric Dier, Declan Rice is left as the senior CDM. He can also drop between the CBs and form a back 3. This gives England adaptability. Alongside him, is Jordan Henderson and Phil Foden. Phil Foden may be young, but he is receiving huge amounts of game time at Manchester City. The drop off between him and the other English attacking midfielders is not too large. Most importantly, Foden is left footed. This would allow for England to be a bit more unpredictable and creative.
Upfront we go for Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, although Sancho is interchangeable. The point here is that, with Harry Kane dropping deep, it would be beneficial for England to have two fast attackers. Rashford, Sancho and Sterling are among the fastest in the squad. This would help England on the counter attack. It would also be useful against teams sitting deep. All three players are in the top rankings for goals and assists. They are gifted finishers, and creators, perfect for efficient goal-scoring.