England’s international break turned out to be very much a mixed bag. Gareth Southgate’s side defeated Wales 3-0 in a friendly and then were fortunate to beat Belgium 2-1 in the UEFA Nations League. But after that, their luck ran out.
Last night saw England defeated 0-1 by Denmark at Wembley, knocking them down to third place in their Nations League group and very much damaging their hopes of making next year’s competition finals.
The games will definitely have given Southgate a lot to think about, so with that in mind, here are five talking points from England’s international break.
#1 Do England have a disciplinary problem?
The biggest talking point coming out of England’s September international break came when youngsters Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were ejected from the squad. The duo were caught breaking COVID-19 safety rules when they invited a pair of Icelandic models back to their hotel room – causing a lot of controversy in the process.
Foden and Greenwood were left out of the most recent squad as a punishment, but that didn’t prevent more controversy in terms of England’s discipline, both on and off the pitch.
Not long after the squad had been announced, it was revealed that Tammy Abraham, Jadon Sancho, and Ben Chilwell had all attended a party for Abraham’s 23rd birthday, breaking the UK’s current COVID-19 rules in the process.
The incident led to all three men being unavailable for the Wales game. And while they were welcomed back into the squad following an apology, only Sancho played any part in the games against Belgium and Denmark.
On the pitch, meanwhile, England’s gameplan against Denmark was left in tatters when Harry Maguire was red-carded for two crude challenges after just 31 minutes. And after the match had ended, Reece James – making his first start for England – was also sent off for dissent.
So do England now have a disciplinary problem? It’s worth exploring. Firstly, the two incidents must be looked at separately.
Abraham, Sancho, and Chilwell made a major error in judgment, but apologised for it. Like Foden and Greenwood, they’re young men who are bound to make some mistakes. Should they have known better? Definitely, but they meant no harm, and as they weren’t on England duty at the time, it’s hard to hang this on Southgate or anyone else associated with the team.
Maguire’s red card, meanwhile, was caused largely by his own poor form right now, and we’ll discuss that a little later, which leaves James. It’s fair to say the referee in the Denmark game didn’t do the best job, but obviously that didn’t give the Chelsea man the right to hurl abuse at him. However, to see frustrations boil over was also somewhat understandable.
With all of this in mind, it’s probably not the case that England have a problem with discipline. All of the incidents were regrettable – and indeed, avoidable – but simply don’t point to anything overly sinister.
#2 Southgate needs to move away from his defensive mindset before it’s too late
Perhaps no other side were as impressive as England in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. The Three Lions throttled their opponents, winning seven of eight games and scoring a scarcely believable 37 goals in the process.
England also performed really well in the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League, where they defeated Spain and Croatia. And it definitely appeared to be the case that Southgate’s 4-3-3 system, a change from the 3-5-2 that he’d used in the 2018 World Cup, was working brilliantly.
However, in the recent international break, Southgate switched to a 3-4-3 system, and it’s safe to say that it didn’t pay off. England struggled for creativity using the new system, only scoring two goals from open play in three matches, and one of those was heavily deflected.
More to the point though, aside from the second half of the Belgium game, the new system also didn’t appear to help the defence. The likes of Eric Dier and Harry Maguire appeared to be shaky and unsure of themselves in a back three. On the other hand, Trent Alexander-Arnold was largely wasted in his role as a wing-back.
But the worst part about Southgate’s new system was his use of two holding midfielders in the centre of the pitch. Whether the combination was Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson or Rice and Kalvin Phillips, it just didn’t work, stunting the team’s attacking instincts entirely.
Will Southgate recognise the limitations of this system and move back to 4-3-3? England fans better hope so, or their chances of success in next summer’s European Championships seem slim to none.