The question to Gareth Southgate following the defeat by Denmark on Wednesday was blunt: are you a cautious or a risk-taking manager?
His answer was passionate: ‘I think we’ve been pretty bold in many of our decisions over a long period of time.
‘Yes, others might have a view. We’ve been top scorers in the World Cup, we were top scorers in the Euro qualifiers and we’ve been to two semi-finals.
England under captain Harry Kane were free-flowing high scorers at the 2018 World Cup
‘We’ve blooded any number of young players. I suppose that I would point to that body of work but it’s for others to have that opinion. I’m not really too concerned.’
Southgate made a compelling argument. But some are no longer convinced.
His faith in young footballers cannot be disputed — Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Bukayo Saka, Harvey Barnes and Reece James all made their senior debuts over the past eight days. But Southgate’s defensive tactics are beginning to create agitation.
Since the end of lockdown, England have scored three goals in four competitive matches. Two of those were penalties, one soft at best, tucked away by Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. The other was a heavily deflected Mason Mount strike that looped over the helpless Simon Mignolet on Sunday as England secured a landmark win over world No 1 side Belgium.
But now Gareth Southgate is suffering a creative block and his tactics are causing agitation
But the victory, which should have been galvanising, was anything but convincing. Belgium were unquestionably the superior team and the win was testament to England’s tenacity more than anything else.
While the Belgians had creative midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and Youri Tielemans strutting around Wembley like they owned the place, Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice — players known for their defensive capabilities more than anything else — were stationed in front of what was effectively a five-man defence.
It was a similar story against the Danes, for whom Christian Eriksen ran the show, driving his team forward from central midfield.
Rice and Kalvin Phillips patrolled industriously in front of England’s defence, showing little attacking intent. That is no slight on Henderson, Rice and Phillips. They are conditioned to play a certain way and are excellent at what they do.
But is there really a need to play with two defensive midfielders against Denmark — a team ranked 12 positions below England in the FIFA rankings?
Mason Mount alongside Jordan Henderson or Declan Rice would give England more dynamism
Southgate’s apparent preference for deploying two holding midfielders in front of three centre backs has not won universal approval among the playing staff, some of whom believe the England manager is playing it too safe.
The national team’s recent impotence in the attacking third suggests those doubting Southgate’s approach may have a point. The England manager’s reluctance to use Jack Grealish provides an intriguing case study. Undoubtedly one of the Premier League’s in-form attacking players, Grealish’s full international debut against Wales last Thursday night was bursting with verve and invention.
But despite that superb showing, Grealish did not play a minute of England’s subsequent Nations League fixtures.
That is baffling. A number of his team-mates certainly thought so. Southgate insists that Harry Maguire’s early red card wrecked any plans he had for Grealish to be introduced as a substitute against Denmark. Nonetheless, the clamour for him to start matches will grow louder — particularly if England continue to falter in the final third.
Marcus Rashford scored one of the three England goals netted competitively since lockdown
Selecting an extended 30-man squad for the recent matches also caused a degree of consternation among the players.
Southgate is only permitted to select 23 players in his match-day squad for competitive games, so seven players were left out of the picture at Wembley against Belgium on Sunday. Three days later, some were told they could head back to their clubs before the match against Denmark after failing to make the cut.
That scenario, rightly or wrongly, has caused irritation, though given England had to play three times in a week, Southgate’s decision to name a larger squad was borne more of necessity than choice.
That said, there is not even a hint of the squad turning against Southgate. That is important to stress.
This group are heavily influenced by their senior players, who have established a seemingly unbreakable bond with the England boss.
His man-management of the younger members of the squad is also said to be deeply impressive — for instance, his one-on-one chats with certain players have gone down very well.
The decision to invite Wolves defender Conor Coady into the leadership group alongside Harry Kane, Henderson and Maguire during the recent international matches is an example of that openness.
Coady, it is understood, can expect to be included in that leadership group on a permanent basis moving forward, a clear sign that he has cemented his place in the England squad — and potentially even the starting XI.
England’s lack of attacking thrust over the past 10 days can largely be put down to the absence of Sterling and Ben Chilwell, who both add obvious impetus to the starting XI.
Nevertheless, the dearth of attacking inspiration against Belgium and Denmark should be a concern for Southgate, particularly with the European Championship just eight months away.
Jack Grealish’s absence was baffling considering his performance against Wales added verve
Members of this squad still remember Southgate’s team selections during the euphoric run to the World Cup semi-finals.
Ball-players Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were selected alongside Henderson in central midfield and England went on to become the tournament’s top scorers. The apparent switch to a sturdier approach and personnel has left many longing for the old Southgate. He certainly has the options to be more expansive.
Mount or Grealish alongside Henderson or Rice would give England far more dynamism in midfield.
Failing that, there is Manchester City’s 20-year-old playmaker Phil Foden. He will come back into consideration for next month’s England games following his exile for inviting two women into the team hotel after last month’s win over Iceland.
All in all, it isn’t panic stations; positive results against Australia, Belgium and Iceland next month and we could be singing to a different tune.
Yet cracks, albeit small, are emerging. Southgate’s lengthy honeymoon period is over.
Manchester City’s Phil Foden will come back into consideration for next month’s games