If politics is not the most fiercely polarising topic of debate in this country, then it’s the England national football team come tournament time. In keeping with the ruthless hero-to-zero dichotomy, talk after England’s opening win against Croatia was of a fairy-tale road to a Wembley final getting off to the perfect start. It was like we’d learned nothing over the past 55 years.
An overblown reaction at least allowed for a positive environment in the camp. The media couldn’t pile on the pressure because the players had won their opening game. England kept a deserved clean-sheet against the Croats, and Raheem Sterling finally scored his first in a major tournament for his country. But beyond that? There was very little else to shout about. It was an uneventful match where England created almost nothing. Phil Foden striking the post in the sixth minute is still a memorable chance precisely because not much besides the goal happened after it.
Against Scotland, the story was much the same. England once again failed to open up their opponents and get in behind. The only difference here was that they failed to score altogether. John Stones came closest, but should a centre-back be providing Gareth Southgate’s side’s clearest opening in front of goal — in this England team stacked with this much attacking quality? It was bleak viewing, and not because of the rain.Embed from Getty Images
England were static and pedestrian against the Scots. They moved the ball slowly, struggled to link defence to midfield and midfield to attack, plus when they did have the ball in the final third they were utterly predictable. England haven’t been free-flowing and thrilling against reasonable opposition since that smash-and-grab 3-2 victory against Spain in Seville nearly three years ago.
In Southgate’s defence, he has clearly analysed how tournament-winning managers of the past set up their sides. His decision to use 3-4-3 during the Nations League last autumn was much derided for how it loses the ability to field a No10. But it was born of the desire to keep the ball, control games, and restrict the opposition to as few chances as possible. A back-four may have returned now, but that pragmatism remains. England are yet to concede in this championship and should be proud of that.
However, there is a fine line between a successful practical approach and the stifling of mercurial attacking talents. Southgate is balancing precariously close to that line. Controlling the tempo of your games is a smart idea, but risks — managed risks — win football matches. In the Scotland fixture, in came two more attacking full-backs than those who faced Croatia. But between them, Luke Shaw and Reece James put just three crosses into the box. Caution in excess.
England supporters are also used to seeing their side struggle against high-pressing sides. Southgate’s England have become a very impressive high-press team themselves, but they are less capable at beating the press of an opponent.
In defeats to Denmark in 2020 and tomorrow’s opposition the Czech Republic in 2019, England’s defenders were pushed back into dark places they didn’t want to be. The Three Lions’ defenders have been good so far at this tournament. But they aren’t good enough to beat the press. We knew it before; we saw it again in the Scotland stalemate. A France or Portugal would look to exploit that.
Perhaps the most blindingly obvious issue for Southgate after two games has been Harry Kane, who has looked off the pace and uninvolved. It may surprise a few, but even this is not a new problem for England. The captain looks set to replace Wayne Rooney as his country’s all-time leading scorer before he retires, but the difference between his Spurs form and England form has long been masked by the number of penalties he slams in for England.Embed from Getty Images
Southgate’s team have found it remarkably easy — especially against inferior sides in qualifiers — to earn penalties, thanks to the pace and trickery of wide players like Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. Kane has so often been on hand to hammer the resulting spot-kicks home. But take a closer look at his England record, minus those free goals — and they are free goals for a penalty-taker as comprehensive and calculated as Kane.
What you are left with is a striker who scores at well below his club rate. From open play, Kane has just a single international goal in his last 11 caps. That was a close-range header against Albania. So a somewhat peripheral Harry Kane is nothing new. But is he to blame? Some have called into question his concentration after absent displays against Croatia and Scotland. Might his mind be consumed by a potential summer transfer? Is he injured?
There are absolutely no indications that he is injured. And anyone who knows what Kane is like will be assured that his sole priority right now is to perform for England, such is his professionalism and his single-minded nature.Embed from Getty Images
A portion of the blame has to go to his teammates. Without the service, a striker cannot score — indeed, cannot even touch the ball. When Kane seems to drop way too deep to collect the ball for England, it comes from frustration. His mindset in that moment is that if progression from midfield to attack or from full-back to attack isn’t fast enough, it then becomes his job to come deeper and speed things up, as jack of all trades.
Kane has spent this tournament isolated from his teammates and sandwiched between two centre-backs. When he hasn’t been there, he’s been dropping deep and asking for the ball to feet. Service into England’s No9 must improve. It’s as simple as that.
England are almost certainly through to the next round with a game to spare, and have their most talented squad since at least 2006. Their problems must not be overplayed. Yet they are problems that have reared their heads before. Southgate has asked fans to get behind the players. But most England fans quite rightly have incredible belief in this current crop. Ultimately, the buck stops with the manager. It is Southgate’s job to take this team as far as they can go.