Gareth Southgate has said the young England players who missed their penalties in the Euro 2020 final are “keen to move on”. Aren’t we all.
That night feels like a strange dream, the 37-second gap between Jordan Pickford’s extraordinary save from Jorginho’s spot kick and Bukayo Saka’s miss still a little unreal; too shocking and raw to really process in the space of a few weeks. Did that really happen? How do we move on?
It might be strangely easy. Life goes on. The Premier League has already roared back at full pelt, Saka deeply embedded in the day-to-day horror show at Arsenal not three weeks after the air was sucked out of Wembley and the nation went numb.
But on Sunday England are back there again to face Andorra, a game they will no doubt win comfortably in a tame 90 minutes that will feel eerily normal, as if the Italy game didn’t even happen. Sandwiched either side are trips to Hungary and Switzerland to complete a trio of World Cup qualifying matches England will surely win.
Croatia & Italy mistakes were too similar
But looking beyond this week’s straightforward matches, how England move on is a more complicated idea. It is only 18 months until the tournament gets underway in Qatar and the country remains split on exactly how the team should be playing.
Southgate has every right to feel vindicated by the conservatism that frustrated so many England supporters this summer, his cautious defensive football having taken the nation to within a penalty shootout lottery of its wildest dreams.
The alternative view, of course, is the Euro 2020 final was alarmingly similar to the World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia. In both matches England took the lead and then slowly withdrew into themselves, dropping deeper and deeper as the opponent began to overrun midfield. In both matches Southgate failed to respond, waiting too long to make changes as he seemingly buckled under the pressure of the occasion.
Southgate can upgrade central midfield
In Southgate’s defence, England were mildly more progressive at Euro 2020 than in Russia, and he has always suggested their playing style reflects the quality of the players at his disposal. It is widely understood that the England manager did not believe he had a strong enough midfield to play more adventurous football.
Perhaps the dial will be turned ever so slightly again. Certainly that is what to look out for during this international break, because while Southgate won’t lose that cautious midblock or safety-first approach (and seeing as Italy 2021, France 2018, and Portugal 2016 all played in that way, why should he?) England need to learn how to assert dominance when 1-0 up in a big game.
The solution is to upgrade central midfield, and fortunately for Southgate the pieces are falling nicely into place.
Declan Rice is looking more and more adventurous for West Ham, driving forward in a confident box-to-box role that he could emulate for England; Jude Bellingham has made a superb start to the season at Borussia Dortmund; and Jack Grealish is set to be converted into a free eight by Pep Guardiola.
Formation change is needed
That’s the good news. The bad news is that it seems highly unlikely England can become more progressive without switching to a 4-3-3. The 3-4-3 – used by Southgate in three of England’s four knockout games in the summer – just isn’t the right shape for line-breaking passes or the sort of neat, clustered triangles required to keep a talented opposition pinned back.
Rice sat behind Grealish and Bellingham is the forward-thinking and ambitious central midfield many England fans will want to see before the World Cup next winter. But it is important to note that the debate over Southgate’s system doesn’t need to be binary; to pick a more progressive system does not mean switching to wild entertainers. Counter-intuitively, a more dynamic midfield would help England play with caution and manage a game to a cold, dull 1-0.
Latest squad not a good sign
Sadly, this move isn’t likely to happen any time soon. The latest England squad suggests not just continuity from Southgate but a slight lack of imagination. Jesse Lingard’s return is strange considering he has not played a single minute of domestic football in 2021/22, while Dele Alli‘s absence is a little harsh given the start he has made under Nuno Esperito Santo.
Dele’s role on the left of a midfield three, linking to quick counter-attacking forwards from within Nuno’s conservative formation, is perfect for the next step Southgate could take as England manager. Hopefully it won’t be long before Dele comes back into the fold.
This probably isn’t the international break that will spark excitement, then, but nevertheless there is some hope on the horizon. This year promises to be huge for Mason Greenwood, while the reputations of Jadon Sancho and Grealish have increased dramatically with their moves to Manchester – which may force Southgate to field these exciting attackers more regularly.
As for this week, that desire to “move on” is the only real objective. Turn up, play the games, get three simple wins; that could be a surprisingly effective healing process for a set of players who haven’t been at Wembley since that traumatic penalty shootout.
Supporters will also be expecting little this week – but don’t expect that goodwill to last. England need to keep evolving as their young squad matures.