Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

Problems for Gareth Southgate as England hunt for best formula with Euro 2020 finals looming

Worrying performances against Kosovo and the Czech Republic leave the Three Lions manager pondering another change in formation

Take two. For the second game in a row, England have the chance to clinch a place at Euro 2020. Yet what long looked a formality could prove a drawn-out affair. Even victory in Bulgaria on Monday will not be enough unless Kosovo fail to beat Montenegro.

Moreover, the manner of both defeat in the Czech Republic and England’s defending in two games when they have conceded five goals means a procession to victory in Sofia cannot be guaranteed. It is only a month since England thrashed Bulgaria 4-0 but fault lines have been exposed since then.

They still look a side with a potent forward line but issues in defence and a difficulty in finding the optimum combination in midfield have provided more problems than solutions.

On Friday, Gareth Southgate used the phrase “wake-up call,” though the nationality of the winners lent itself to headlines about a “reality Czech”. After two years of heartening progress, England regressed.

If some of Southgate’s success has come from camouflaging shortcomings, they have been glaringly apparent in England’s last 135 minutes of football.

While ultimately losing 5-3, Kosovo ‘won’ the second half 2-0. Then the Czechs came from behind to prevail in Prague.

Meanwhile, with Southgate showing a tactical restlessness, England have come full circle, leaving them considering revisiting their past in the search of a brighter future, a quest for perfection leaving them looking more flawed.

For the first time in two years, Southgate played 4-2-3-1 in Prague. It illustrated why he moved away from the formation. It left England outnumbered in midfield at times, with Mason Mount too advanced as a No. 10, and the two deeper men, Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson, offering too little by way of penetrative passing.

Southgate is now toying with reverting to three centre-backs, a formula that worked well at the World Cup but which could entail dropping one of his feared forwards to try and remedy a weakness. It threatens to hamper England’s attacking efforts. Raheem Sterling was an inferior player in a 3-5-2 formation. It may not suit Jadon Sancho, either.

Even if Southgate sticks with a defensive quartet tonight, three of Friday’s failures ought to be omitted. He would not be alone if he took qualification for granted, but he has spent the season experimenting.

If it feels odd that England have selected what appears their second-choice full-back combination in two of their last three games, it backfired on Friday.

Danny Rose compounded an abject showing by collecting the caution that brought a ban. Ben Chilwell should replace him in the team. When fit, Luke Shaw should take his spot in the squad.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is potentially the world’s best right-back but Southgate has picked Kieran Trippier more often this season. The Liverpudlian should start.

Southgate has adopted a different policy in the middle, but with similarly unsuccessful results. Michael Keane has had an extended audition alongside Harry Maguire. He has failed it.

Were Joe Gomez in the Liverpool side, a player whose pace and precocity appeals to Southgate would look the obvious alternative. But, as Maguire noted: “We bring our club football into international level.”

Too many England defenders – or, in Maguire’s case, his club – are out of form. It offers a reason to give a debut to one of two improbable candidates who should boast more confidence: the former Chippenham Town player Tyrone Mings or the Canada Under-20 international Fikayo Tomori, a veteran of only five Premier League starts.

In midfield, Harry Winks’ precision in possession makes him an antidote to Rice and Henderson, but perhaps the Tottenham playmaker, a less physical player, would afford that creaking defence still less protection.

Southgate faces the same dilemma as Frank Lampard – Mount or Ross Barkley? – and if the Chelsea manager has his answer, his England counterpart has a different situation.

Mount merits more chances but Barkley has been one of his country’s best players over the last year. They offer different types of form.

They highlight the paradoxically complicating nature of England. Even as they are at a rare historic high – World Cup and Nations League semi-finalists, beaten in a solitary qualifier in a decade, ranked fourth in the planet – perhaps only Maguire, Sterling, Harry Kane and Jordan Pickford could be deemed automatic picks.

If Southgate has eight months to settle on the other seven choices and few matches to inform his decision-making. If England can still be sure they will be at Euro 2020, they do not know when they will book their spot or, more worryingly, who they will field and in which formation.

Updated: October 14, 2019 07:43 AM

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