Five problems England MUST address to succeed at Euro 2024

The dire draw with Denmark has cranked up the pressure again on the Three Lions to perform to the sum of their parts in Germany

There will be a distinct sense of deja vu for England at Euro 2024, as they find themselves in something of a quandary once again after two group stage games at a major tournament. Although they have all-but qualified for the last 16, their utterly uninspiring displays against both Serbia and Denmark have left belief in their ability to go all the way and lift the trophy at its lowest ebb.

Thursday evening’s lacklustre 1-1 draw with Denmark in Frankfurt has only intensified the spotlight on manager Gareth Southgate, as his unchanged team failed to justify his perseverance and ultimately left him with more questions than answers.

“We’ve got to go and analyse that in-depth and find some solutions to addressing the issues that we have,” the manager said in his post-match press conference. “Over the next few days we’ll spend a lot of time doing that. We know the level has to be higher, we know the level can be higher. Maybe the biggest thing is we have to accept the environment that we’re in and the expectations that are around us. We are going to have to walk towards that challenge.”

There is plenty of work to do before England face Slovenia on Tuesday, but what are the main problems facing Southgate and his staff?

Kane on the fringes

Denmark deserve huge credit for the way they restricted England in attacking areas in the face of their plethora of creative talent, but the Three Lions’ inability to get their captain Harry Kane involved was still alarming.

The No.9 did, of course, stick the ball into the back of the net early on courtesy of a horrible defensive error and a fortunate ricochet, but for the second game in a row he largely spent the match on the periphery of proceedings, coming looking for the ball rather than letting it reach him naturally.

The Bayern Munich hitman even gave the ball away in the lead-up to Denmark’s stunning equaliser from Morten Hjulmand – a demonstration of just how far deep he was dropping. It was a performance that smacked of a player who hadn’t been given clear tactical instructions and was instead trying to force things.

His display drew plenty of criticism, not least from England legend Gary Lineker: “He needs his manager to come to him and ask a little bit more of him,” the BBC Sport presenter said. “I would have expected that if I’d put in that kind of performance. Against a back three he has to stretch the play, run one way and then come short so you don’t have to come too far to receive it. He needs to make more space for the midfield players behind him to create chances. His movement was minimal. He didn’t look to go behind and he doesn’t often, but even when he comes short he’s drifting short very lethargically, he’s plodding short and that’s not going to help.”

The left-back problem

We all knew Kieran Trippier wasn’t a left-back before Euro 2024 began, and his performances thus far have only served to highlight a serious problem position for England. Despite the fact he hasn’t played since January, Southgate saw fit to include an injured and unfit Luke Shaw in his squad, alongside five centre-backs. The decision to leave Ben Chilwell at home means the Manchester United man is the only specialist left-sided full-back in the entire squad.

Southgate insists that Shaw is “on track” in his recovery, which begs the question of why he was selected in the first place having missed two games. It’s still unclear when he will be ready to start, and he will surely not be match fit either way.

Through no fault of his own, Trippier looks inhibited at left-back – too afraid to take on his marker or play a forward pass with his weaker foot for fear of making a costly mistake, meaning England are seriously limited on their left side with Phil Foden always keen to tuck inside.

“We don’t have our best left-back available so that denies you the opportunity for that balance,” Southgate said in his post-match comments. “But I think Tripps [Trippier] has done an incredible job for the team. His spirit, his organisation, his desire have helped us get over the line in the last two games. That’s in no way a criticism of him, but it’s obviously going to be different with a right-footer there than a left.”

Liverpool’s Joe Gomez could offer a solution against Slovenia in England’s final group game. A right-footed centre-back by trade, he was used regularly at left-back by Jurgen Klopp during the club season and showed on numerous occasions he is confident enough to get forward. It’s time to throw caution to the wind, after all.

Back to the drawing board
In midfield, it is surely time for Southgate to accept that his half-cooked Trent Alexander-Arnold experiment isn’t ready for the world just yet. The Liverpool man was hooked early in the second half against Denmark having once again failed to influence a game from his deep-lying playmaker role.

Speaking after the game, the Three Lions boss bizarrely suggested England were missing defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips and that’s what he has been attempting to mitigate for, seemingly ignoring the talent of two youngsters sat on the bench in the form of Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton – both of whom have earned their place in his squad.

“He’s (Alexander-Arnold) had some moments where he’s delivered what we thought he would,” the manager said. “We know it’s an experiment. We know we don’t have a natural replacement for Kalvin Philips. We’re trying different things and at the moment we’re not flowing as we’d like.”

In truth, a tournament setting is probably not the best place to carry out this experiment, and Southgate now has a big decision on his hands. If he does not stick with Alexander-Arnold, Conor Gallagher is probably the safe option, but Mainoo and Wharton are only risks due to their age and lack of experience. They have shown in the Premier League that they can shine on the biggest stage.

Over-reliance on their No.10
Alexander-Arnold doesn’t provide the only conundrum in the middle of the park, however. After haring around the pitch like a man possessed in a match-winning display against Serbia on Sunday, Jude Bellingham was a shadow of that player in the draw with Denmark four days later.

Despite toiling throughout as he lost 10 duels, had just two touches in the Danish box and failed to have a single shot, the midfielder was left on the pitch for the full 90 minutes as his manager desperately sought a winner and some sort of sudden end to England’s woes.

Foden, who had been arguably England’s best attacking player, was taken off with 20 minutes still to play. It is early days, but this perhaps already reflects an over-reliance on the Real Madrid star to provide moments of inspiration, even when he has clearly run himself into the ground.

It’s not like there wasn’t other options available to the manager: Foden could have been shifted centrally, Eberechi Eze is at his best as an attacking midfielder, and Cole Palmer remained benched despite his extraordinary creative season at club level.

Questionable substitutions

Indeed, although he was much more bold with his substitutions than in the opening game, Southgate’s changes should still come in for some scrutiny.

No-one would argue with the decision to hook Alexander-Arnold after just nine minutes of the second period, but replacing him with Gallagher – whose main attributes are his tenacity and work rate rather than technical ability – leaned into the game becoming a battle of attrition, rather than one England would look to win through their creativity and guile.

Wharton might have been the ideal candidate against Denmark’s low block, and when England needed some width to stretch their back five, Southgate turned to attacking midfielder Eze instead of orthodox wide man Anthony Gordon. Meanwhile, Jarrod Bowen – once again introduced ahead of Palmer and Gordon – was ineffective.

The timings of his changes were also curious, as he made a triple substitution with 20 minutes to play – arguably not long enough for the fresh legs to have the desired effect.

The manager does deserve credit for showing some bravery and withdrawing his captain Kane after another game spent on the periphery of proceedings, despite his goal, with Ollie Watkins looking sharp and making a tangible difference with his runs in behind.

Familiar feeling
It is not all doom and gloom, however, and it is worth bearing in mind that the group phase can be deceiving. Although the performances have been uninspiring against perceived weaker opposition, England’s Euro 2024 campaign is actually following a similar pattern to their previous two major tournaments.

At Euro 2020 on home soil, the Three Lions edged Croatia in their opening game before a dire goalless draw with Scotland at Wembley on matchday two. They would secure a narrow win over the Czech Republic in their final group match before, of course, going on a run to the final.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar was a similar story, as England thumped Iran, then played out a forgettable bore-draw with the United States, before comfortably downing Wales to reach the last 16.

Recent history dictates, then, that Southgate’s England generally come into their own from the final group phase game onwards, when they have finally settled and ironed out the creases. The Three Lions’ loyal fanbase will hope that is the case, but the manager has just four days to find some answers.

 

 

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