England’s lack of momentum and clarity eased by return of cavalry | David Hytner

Tyrone Mings’s forearm smash on the Austria striker Sasa Kalajdzic. Jordan Henderson’s taking of a penalty away from the centre-forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin against Romania, and missing it. Any number of defensive slips, individually or collectively.

The thought has occurred all too frequently during England’s Euro 2020 warm-up games: thank goodness it was not the finals. Can you imagine if these kind of errors, some rooted in the all-consuming desire to impress, in players essentially losing their composure, had happened, say, against Croatia in the opening group game on Sunday?

And yet, with Croatia heaving into view, it is impossible to ignore the feeling that England lack momentum, even clarity. Gareth Southgate has described the Austria and Romania friendlies as hugely complicated and, with time tight and situations evolving constantly, the manager has been forced to carry out his finest plate-spinning act.

The cavalry have arrived in the shape of Southgate’s seven-strong contingent from Manchester City and Chelsea after their post-Champions League final break and the manager also moved first thing on Monday to resolve the situation over the squad’s 26th player – following the withdrawal of the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold.

It is Ben White who has got the nod from the standby list, rather than James Ward-Prowse, as Southgate worries more about being short in central defence, particularly were he to revert to a back three, than being short in the middle of the pitch; he has selected only four pure central midfielders. White, though, can play in defensive midfield.

“In terms of this week, it will be the best we have had in terms of having everyone available and ready to train and work,” Southgate said, with a nod towards the return of the City and Chelsea players.

But it was not long before he was back into his problems, mentioning Bukayo Saka’s minor injury and Harry Maguire’s more major ankle ligament one – Saka should “only be two or three days” – and even how Spain and Portgual, who had players in the Champions League final, have the advantage of a later opening match. Spain kick off next Monday; Portugal the day after that.

There is an old saying in football that if you give a player an excuse they will take it. And, even if he does not, there is the fear it will lurk in the back of their mind, doing battle with the marginal gains. Amid all of the challenges, a no-excuses culture is vital or, as Southgate preferred to put it, adaptability and resilience are everything.

“Our whole season has been one where we have had to adapt and show resilience,” he said. “Even on Saturday night there were potential issues for the Romania game on Sunday that me and the staff had to work through quickly and then that changed and we were fine so it’s a constant changing environment. But everyone has their issues.”

Ben White has thrust himself into the spotlight after replacing the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Ben White has thrust himself into the spotlight after replacing the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters

The lineup for the Croatia game will dominate the conversation, with Maguire’s expected absence raising the prospect of a return to a 3-4-3 system. It is because there are doubts over whether Southgate will trust Mings or Conor Coady in a central defensive two alongside John Stones and to thrust White into such a role would be quite the leap – and make a mockery of the original selection of Mings and Coady ahead of him. Southgate said he had picked White in his provisional 33-man squad mainly so he might benefit from the experience.

“Every time I have ever written a team down on a scrap of paper over the last 12 months I have had to get the pencil with the rubber out and change it because we have lost people,” Southgate said. “So I am loathed to pen it in ink, if you like, tonight. Hopefully we can avoid any injury or illness issues in the next few days.”

Mings picked a bad time to have a howler against Romania and, if Southgate does go back to three centre-halves, having played a four-man defence in all five matches since March, it will plainly have an impact on the composition of the midfield where, to compound matters, Henderson is some way short of sharpness. His 45-minute penalty-missing cameo on Sunday was his first football since 20 February.

“I didn’t like us without the ball in the first half against Romania but that was the whole team – it started from the front,” Southgate said. “We weren’t disciplined in the way we defended, our recovery runs were not good enough. It meant that the midfield was stretched and the back players had too many decisions to make. They were having to come into spaces where they shouldn’t have needed to be.

“There is a lot of work to be done on the training ground as, without a doubt, we cannot give up the number of chances we did against Romania and not expect to be punished.”

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

On the upside, the feeling that England could be a little clogged up has served to dampen the traditionally rampant pre-tournament expectations. The reality, though, is that improvement is imperative.

“To win tournaments we have to get every aspect of the game right,” Southgate said. “We can improve on all the small details from the performances against Austria and Romania. It’s now one of those rare periods where you get some work with the team, some continuity and we’ll take every opportunity to polish every aspect of our game.”


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more