It says a lot about the slog that England and Italy produced on Saturday that in the end what didn’t happen seemed more telling than how little did. England didn’t click in attack and didn’t create many clean chances; when that briefly changed, Raheem Sterling failed to adjust in time to convert a cross from Reece James as he was gloriously placed in front of goal.
Sterling’s failure came as a particular shock afterwards, when a frustrated Gareth Southgate said his supporting cast needed to do more. England are too reliant on Sterling and Harry Kane for goals, he said, which presents an additional complication when one or both misses. When asked about the scarcity of Kane’s talent, the theme of absence again dominated. “The problem is if you don’t have it for whatever reason,” Southgate said.
In the event that Kane is injured, England are likely to continue with Tammy Abraham – although Southgate is hardly happy with the Roma player’s performance at Molineux – or flirt with a false 9, perhaps Phil Foden. Kane will always cause the most concern, but the prospect of a drooling Sterling scratching at a sore that has developed elsewhere in England’s attack.
Southgate find themselves lighter on in-form alternatives than they might have expected a year ago. While England’s attacking options were considered the most plentiful in the world, the number of people he could reliably turn to dwindled. Even though Sterling’s place in the World Cup starting XI is all but assured, despite some uncertainty over his status at Manchester City, most of those who could line up on the opposite flank, or even dislodge him, come with caveats and trade-offs.
It raised an eyebrow to hear Southgate claim, without explicitly naming names, that Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho have “a long way to go to get back into the team”. Only 11 months have passed since both players took part in the Euro 2020 final; Rashford is by far England’s third highest probable and possible goalscorer, while memories should stretch long enough to visualize Sancho, not called up since October, in perfect harmony with Kane and Sterling in some of the qualifying for this competition.
The two struggled during a terrible Manchester United season; Sancho’s upturn in form towards the end of the campaign may give him more hope of a recall, but he’s asking a lot for either to gain the momentum between August and October that could restore the confidence of their international coach.
Among others who could aspire to dislodge this month’s crop, Emile Smith Rowe cannot be ruled out but must combine a repeat of his early season form with a robustness that is not yet evident. Harvey Barnes hasn’t started since his 2020 debut and Jesse Lingard’s time has almost certainly passed. Callum Hudson-Odoi’s next selection looks more likely to be for Ghana. Mason Greenwood is irrelevant.
Suddenly the closet doesn’t look so lavishly stocked and that increases the odds that Southgate will eventually go with the band who, by their own estimation, lacked sharpness during a League smoldering miniseries. of Nations. He needs more of most of them. In recent days he has spoken in ostensibly admiring terms of Mason Mount, often off the cuff or in response to questions pushing competitor claims.
Mount’s versatility and tactical wit make him a manager’s dream, even if he’s less imposing than some on the ball. Southgate was delighted with his pressing from the No.10 position against Germany, where he felt Mount had canceled out Joshua Kimmich and the Italians; which looks like his eventual home, although he could be deployed in a close support role in a variation of 3-4-3.
Assuming Southgate opts for a back four when England start their Qatar 2022 campaign against Iran, that would leave Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and Jarrod Bowen to choose from for the other wide berth. The argument for Foden may have been enhanced by his own absence with Covid-19, given the scarcity of the offer from England, although there are still questions over his place.
For his blend of defensive diligence, technical quality and attacking drive, Saka ticks the most boxes: he does, however, feel he needs to impose himself more consistently, and it’s worth noting that three of his four goals internationals were scored against Andorra and San Marino.
Perhaps it was Bowen and Grealish who, side by side, laid bare the enigma of Southgate. After Bowen performed respectably on his Hungary debut, Southgate pointed out that he took more shots than anyone else in the squad. Assessing Grealish’s much-anticipated departure against Italy, he praised his ball-carrying skills but observed that they only brought one goal attempt. Bowen has rough edges but is direct, sharp and, even if the odds are wrong, ready to come back for more. Could a path open up to the starting XI at the Khalifa International Stadium?
“I’ve had opportunities and I’ve been in positions where I have opportunities,” he said of his budding international career. “It’s just about converting those chances and being really ruthless.” If he does better against the Hungarians on Tuesday, his request could become impossible to ignore.
Bowen and Grealish spoke last week about the freedom Southgate gives them. Grealish could be seen drifting past his back four to take possession in Saturday’s second half. This has yet to translate into fluidity and there are underlying factors beyond the varying merits of wide men: England would be so much more skilful, for example, if their forwards could combine with at least one midfielder of land capable of taking possession on the U-turn and recycling. as quickly as their continental counterparts. But that situation won’t change until November, so forwards need to find a way to step up.
“We have to start spreading that load,” Southgate said of their goal burden. This overabundance of wing talent must quickly become visible through its end product, rather than through its holes.