What We Learned From England’s Friendlies

AP/Justin Tallis

Wembley friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast were never going to teach anyone a great deal about how England are shaping up on the pitch. That became especially clear once Tammy Abraham, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Aaron Ramsdale dropped out of the squad through injury and Bukayo Saka with Covid. So the March internationals became for Gareth Southgate exactly what they always were for the players’ club managers: a pair of matches to come through unscathed — nothing less, and not very much more.

So perhaps the biggest thing to take away was always likely to be a non-footballing matter. Still, no one was expecting it to be that England fans booed one of their own players. Harry Maguire — there’s no hiding it — has been suffering from hugely poor form at Manchester United.

But while Southgate has always been keen to reward strong club form, he knows that England is a functioning team in its own right. Club form is only part of the reason a player receives a call-up. He gives great weighting in that regard to the performances his players have put in for his team previously. That’s why Jesse Lingard didn’t need to be far into his West Ham loan before Southgate brought him back into the fold. That’s why faith was placed in Raheem Sterling at the Euros despite him having been dislodged in the Manchester City line-up towards the end of last season.

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And that’s why Harry Maguire was given the green light to travel down to St George’s Park last month. Maguire is not an instinctive body-on-the-line centre-back, and he can look awkward on the ball at times. Yet he has been a giant for England in their two tournament runs under Southgate. He also scores important goals for England — so many in fact that in November he overtook Bobby Moore and John Terry to become the national team’s highest-scoring defender of all-time. Southgate said repeatedly during the international break that Maguire and John Stones have allowed England to play a totally different style of football from what was possible before they were first placed next to one another.

Southgate was smart to acknowledge England’s most ardent ‘home and away’ fans were singing Maguire’s name when his selection in the starting XI was booed by the other end of the ground before a ball had even been kicked against Ivory Coast. It’s telling that those who see Maguire every time he wears an England shirt wanted him in, yet those who perhaps see him in the red of United more often than for England voiced their disapproval. It’s a game of opinions. And what Southgate has seen of Maguire has thoroughly impressed him.

He was smart when asked about the booing after the game, describing England players being booed by their own fans at Wembley as a return to the dark ages. He also said that such negativity contributed to the shirt weighing heavy on the shoulders of eventually-underperforming England teams of the past. Quite apart from results on the pitch, Southgate has invested too much personal time and effort to making England camps enjoyable to allow a few boos to undo all that good work. He was understandably sharp afterwards, telling one broadcaster the booing was an “absolute joke”. The manager was trying to present the booing as counterproductive, as likely to induce the opposite response of what the fans want to see. This was an intelligent use of the media from the England manager.

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Another player who has been excellent for England every time he has put on the shirt is Declan Rice. But while Maguire’s club form has wavered since losing the Euro 2020 final, West Ham’s Rice has kicked on. David Moyes now says he’ll only consider summer bids of over £150m for his best player.

Rice was brought on when England’s 3-5-2 wasn’t working against Switzerland. And in that display, as well as from the start in the routine win over Côte d’Ivoire, he showed again why he is already an assured starter for England come their World Cup opener against Iran on 21 November. Rice is a magnetic personality, but also a magnetic to which the ball seems desperate to attach itself. He tackles, he harries, he passes, he controls, he assists, he marauds forward, and he scores every once in a while too. Southgate is not the kind of manager to describe a 23-year-old as a future England captain unless he really thinks that’s highly likely to come to fruition.

The nation seems settled on at least one thing about its national team: that Rice’s midfield partner should be the Borussia Dortmund teenager Jude Bellingham. He went to the Euros and made it onto the field at 17 and is becoming an increasingly involved member of Southgate’s squad, now aged 18. But when Southgate spoke about him after the Ivory Coast win, he urged caution and half-implied he might pick a more trusted figure such as Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson to partner Rice, even though there are still eight months until the World Cup starts for Bellingham to prove he’s undroppable.

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Speaking about Bellingham and Crystal Palace’s Conor Gallagher — who also had an excellent international break — the England boss suggested the two youngsters might not have quite enough tactical discipline to be trusted in one of the two midfield pivot roles just yet. Bellingham is a hugely exciting player and one who is not going away any time soon. If this tournament were a lost cause before England even went, then perhaps there would an argument for giving Bellingham tournament experience. But England are one of the favourites to lift the trophy come 18 December, and Southgate seems to think Henderson and Phillips are that bit more trustworthy in terms of fulfilling the precise function he has asked of them. He called Bellingham “a foraging No 8.” That was a lovely description of a midfielder who is so incredibly versatile, but whose flexibility maybe counts against him when it comes to nailing down a starting berth.

Further forward, Southgate can be pleased that Ollie Watkins capped his first Three Lions start with his second international goal. However, Watkins is a striker more in the mould of Jamie Vardy than of England’s starting forward, captain, and best player Harry Kane. Kane is England’s undisputed talisman and will be a main man for the national team for the next four years at least. But it is time Southgate picks Kane’s clear deputy for the next few years — and it is important that he sticks with him.

It was a shame Abraham dropped out through injury given his blistering form for Jose Mourinho’s Roma this term. Dominic Calvert-Lewin made the most of a few England caps in autumn 2020 and spring 2021, and Brentford’s Ivan Toney may still be uncapped but is a formidable striker. Watkins and Leeds’s Patrick Bamford are too different from Kane and would require the whole team to service them differently. Southgate should see that and should persist with No 9s who are focal points, like Kane is. No one can be expected to drop in and spray passes around as well as Kane. That would be an unreasonable demand. Yet Abraham, Calvert-Lewin and Toney are the three natural options as his deputy. Pick one and give him meaningful game time in matches where Kane isn’t needed.

Two wins from two for England. And it’s never bad preparation to come from behind and overturn a deficit — especially with an experimental line-up against a top-class side like Switzerland. Two games to come through unscathed, and England did just that. Fine debuts from young trio Tyrick Mitchell, Marc Guéhi and Kyle Walker-Peters were a welcome bonus.

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