lt spoke volumes for the slog England and Italy produced on Saturday that what ultimately didn’t happen seemed more significant than the little that did. England did not click in attack and did not create many clear opportunities; when that briefly changed, Raheem Sterling didn’t adjust in time to convert a cross from Reece James when he was gloriously in front of goal.
Sterling’s miss hurt especially in the aftermath, when a frustrated Gareth Southgate said his supporting cast needed to do more. England is too dependent on Sterling and Harry Kane for goals, he said, adding an extra layer of complication when one or both fail. When the rarity of Kane’s talent was presented to him, the theme of absence once again dominated. “The concern is if you don’t have it for whatever reason,” Southgate said.
In the event that Kane should be damaged, England would presumably continue with Tammy Abraham – though Southgate barely glowed with the Roma player’s performance at Molineux – or flirt with a false 9, perhaps Phil Foden. Kane will always be the most concerned, but the prospect of a sputtering Sterling scratched a sore that has developed elsewhere in England’s attack.
Southgate finds himself lighter on in-form alternatives than he expected a year ago. Where England’s attacking capabilities have been hailed as the most bountiful in the world, the number from whom he can reliably deduce a tune has dwindled. While Sterling’s place in the starting XI at the World Cup is almost certain, despite some uncertainty about his status at Manchester City, most of those who could field the opposing flank or even oust him come with caveats and compromises.
It raised an eyebrow to hear Southgate claim, without naming explicitly, that Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho “have a lot to do to get back into the squad”. Only 11 months have passed since both players joined the Euro 2020 final† Rashford is by some distance the third-highest scorer among England’s probabilities and possibilities, while memory must stretch enough to visualize Sancho, who has not been called up since October, joining Kane and Sterling beautifully in some of the qualifiers. for that competition.
Both struggled during a terrible Manchester United season; Sancho’s rebound in form towards the end of the season may give him more hope for a recall, but it takes a lot from both of them to get the momentum between August and October that can restore their international manager’s confidence.
Emile Smith Rowe cannot be ruled out of the others who may have ambitions to dislodge this month’s crop, but he must combine a repeat of his early season form with a robustness that is not yet apparent. Harvey Barnes hasn’t kicked since his 2020 debut and Jesse Lingard’s time has almost certainly passed. Callum Hudson-Odoi’s next cap looks more likely to be for Ghana. Mason Greenwood is out of the picture.
Suddenly the cupboard doesn’t look so lavishly stocked and that increases the chances that Southgate will eventually go along with the group that, in his own judgment, lacked sharpness during a slow-burning Nations League mini series. He needs more of most of them. In recent days, he has spoken of Mason Mount in decidedly admiring terms, often unsolicited or in response to questions posed by competitors’ claims.
Mount’s versatility and tactical cuteness make him a manager’s dream, even if he’s less imposing on the ball than some. Southgate was delighted with his pressure from the number 10 position against Germany, where he felt Mount Joshua had wiped out Kimmich and the Italians; that looks like his eventual home, although he could be used in a small supporting role in a 3-4-3 variant.
Assuming Southgate opts for a back four when England kick off their Qatar 2022 campaign against Iran, that would leave a choice between Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and Jarrod Bowen for the other big place. The argument for Foden may have been improved by his own absence with Covid-19, given England’s scarce supply, although questions remain about where he fits.
For his mix of defensive zeal, technical prowess and attacking dynamism, Saka ticks most of the boxes: there’s a sense that he needs to impose himself more consistently, and it’s worth noting that three of his four international goals were against Andorra and San Marino.
Perhaps it is Bowen and Grealish who, side by side, uncover the enigma of Southgate. After Bowen performed respectably on his debut in Hungary, Southgate pointed out that he had fired more shots than anyone else on the team. Judging Grealish’s long-awaited launch against Italy, he praised his ball-carrying qualities, but noted that they had only scored one shot. Bowen has rough edges, but is direct, sharp and, even when the odds fail, willing to come back for more. Could a path open up to the starting grid at Khalifa International Stadium?
“I’ve had opportunities and been in positions where I get opportunities,” he said of his burgeoning international career. “It’s about taking those opportunities and being ruthless.” If he does even better against the Hungarians on Tuesday, his claim could be impossible to ignore.
Bowen and Grealish spoke last week about the freedom Southgate offers them. In the second half of Saturday you could see Grealish driving four in front of his back to take possession. That has yet to translate into fluency and there are underlying factors beyond the various merits of the wide men: England, for example, would be so much slicker if their forwards could combine with at least one midfielder who can take possession on the half turn and recycle it just as quickly as their continental peers. But that situation won’t change before November, so the attackers have to find a way to stand up.
“We have to spread that burden,” Southgate said of their goal burden. That abundance of wing talent should quickly be noticed by its end product, rather than its holes.
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