There has perhaps been an unexpectedly high level of pragmatism in England’s performances at Euro 2020, which continued with Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic. Rather than unleash the full attacking potential of a squad and its array of forward options, Southgate has sought to protect its weakest link — the defence — with a more conservative use of the ball and greater positional discipline than many anticipated.
Despite grumbles at the aesthetics, it’s hard to argue with the results. Raheem Sterling scored the only goal to hand England seven points from a possible nine and another shutout; the Three Lions as a team have kept clean sheets in their first three games at a major tournament for the first time since 1966.
Of course, we all know what happened that year, but for England to follow in the footsteps of that World Cup-winning side, there surely has to be a degree of evolution in their play. Winning Group D is an accomplishment, but the prize will be a last-16 tie against one of France, Germany or Portugal— all of whom have all set the pulses racing faster in admittedly a group that leaves a far smaller margin for error than the one England topped with Tuesday’s win.
There were signs of that evolution early on vs. the Czechs. The buildup was complicated by Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell having to self-isolate after being deemed close contacts of Scotland midfielder Billy Gilmour, who tested positive for COVID-19 after Friday’s 0-0 draw here at Wembley.
Mount’s importance in England’s opening matches may have influenced Southgate’s decision to rotate his team, but the inclusion of Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka still sated the desire of many fans and pundits to see the co-hosts line up with more obvious flair options to freshen up an attack that looked disjointed against the Scots. Saka’s inclusion over Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho was somewhat surprising, but the Arsenal winger fully justified his selection, injecting precisely the purpose and positive attacking play that had been lacking four days earlier.
Saka was integral to England’s bright start, during which England hit the woodwork early on for the third game in succession when Sterling lifted a shot over Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik only to strike his left-hand post. He then drove England forward and dug out a cross that Grealish kept alive by exchanging passes with Harry Kane, who looked more like his old self when there was greater movement around him. Grealish then stood up his own cross to the back post, where Sterling evaded his marker and nodded home his second goal of Euro 2020.
Grealish and Luke Shaw combined well down the left. There were occasions when Kyle Walker took up a similar position to when Manchester City had the ball, drifting into central midfield to help build attacks, and yes, there was space, but England were using it well.
That was until the second half. England were seemingly content to see out the match with an increasingly conservative use of possession, heightened by Southgate’s substitutions from introducing Jordan Henderson at half-time with one eye on the last 16, with later additions of Jude Bellingham and Tyrone Mings helping shore things up. Even the more attacking introductions of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were laced with caution.
There’s nothing wrong with a safe approach that at this stage, especially given the convoluted lead-up to the Euro 2020 involving players joining up late from club engagements and others returning from injury. England’s wastefulness in possession and poor in-tournament management have been habitual failings that Southgate knows well from his time as a player and five years as manager.
Tournaments are not won at the group stage, only the group itself, and England have achieved that. It remains to be seen whether Southgate goes from here, but England are unlikely to go toe-to-toe against any of the more vaunted opposition they can face.
Harry Maguire looked assured on his first outing for Manchester United or England since May 9 following an ankle injury. Maguire’s presence may encourage Southgate to switch to a back three for next week’s last-16 game, while Saka and Grealish further forward will test the 50-year-old’s longstanding principle of picking players in form rather than on historic reputation. It’s not yet clear what his best team is and while that gives England a degree of unpredictability, it also makes the full week’s preparation they now have before returning to Wembley next Tuesday in front of an increased 45,000-strong crowd absolutely vital.
“The first thing is it is great to have a couple of days to recover the players because a few of them have had quite a heavy load in the last week or so at the end of a very long season,’ said Southgate.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t overdo the work on the training ground. But the difference for the next game compared to this morning, where we wanted to change the way we were defending and we couldn’t get onto a training pitch to do it, we had do it in team meetings. Huge credit to the players for adapting without the ball the way they did tonight.
“Of course, you always want training time: it’s the thing we don’t have as international managers, and we’ve had hardly any of it with the full group because of the complications at the start of our training camp. It would be nice to have what looks like everybody available bar the two lads who are isolating and that time, once we know who our opponents are will be definitely helpful.”
Shaka Hislop explains why whomever plays England from Group F in the round of 16 won’t be worried.
They surely need to offer a little more going forward, regardless of who they face. England’s expected goals during the second half was 0.00: surrendering that much momentum to a top team feels a risky proposition. They also created the fewest chances (17) of any team in their group: Scotland, who finished bottom, made 28, Croatia 24 and the Czech Republic 22.
Perhaps the consternation towards their performances in some quarters is based upon the distance between how exhilarating the team can look on paper (with various permutations) and the moderation they’ve shown to this point. Yet Southgate has achieved his first major objective. The next one — winning a knockout round against a true heavyweight — is one of the toughest remaining, especially as the team is still taking shape.
Asked by ESPN whether he knew his ideal lineup for the last 16, Southgate replied: “For the last 12 months, whenever I’ve written a team-sheet down anything more than two days before a game, it has changed. At the moment, no. We’ll watch the matches tomorrow, we’ll see how everybody is once we get back to St George’s and through the next couple of days of recovery and we’ll go from there.
“What’s clear is there are some areas of the team we’ve been able to build closer to what we think is full strength as the last four weeks or so has gone on, as players have arrived late from the European finals or been able to get them on the pitch following injury, or a lack of match fitness.
“I’ve always felt we would have to grow into this tournament in terms of selection.”
In that regard, a massive week lies ahead.