Standing near the team bus late in the evening, Gareth Southgate had his hands in his pockets and a new set of problems running through his mind.

The England manager knows what is coming between now and next Sunday’s Euro 2024 opening game against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen. A week of questions, old criticisms, fresh doubts and some familiar English football tournament anxiety.

Southgate tried to spin his team’s dismal performance against Iceland at Wembley the only positive way he could. Defeat would sharpen the focus, he said.

He’s a bright bloke, though, Southgate. He knows what sits in front of him now and it’s the not entirely new realisation that he has two England teams under this command this summer. The one that plays with the ball and the one that plays without.

The first one is characterised by the brilliant reliability of Harry Kane and the precocious talent of Jude Bellingham and Cole Palmer. The second by injury, uncertainty and a lack of defensive experience that saw them lose by a goal to the 72nd best team in the world on Friday on a night when it could have been more.

Gareth Southgate knows he is facing a week of questions ahead of his side’s Euros opener against Serbia 

England fell to a disappointing and lack-lustre defeat to Iceland at Wembley on Friday evening

England fell to a disappointing and lack-lustre defeat to Iceland at Wembley on Friday evening

It is this that cuts to the very heart of the oldest Southgate debate in town, the one about the trade-off between bravery and caution. To those who say Southgate is a negative and unadventurous coach, this was a game that actually pointed to that one insecurity that has long sat at the back of his mind. What happens when England have to defend?

This, in a nutshell, is why he will always really want another defensive-minded player to operate in and around Declan Rice and now that his back four will head to Germany without Harry Maguire and with John Stones looking ever more injury-prone, the debate over whether Southgate should veer away from his favoured 4-2-3-1 system is now pretty much closed.

‘Maybe in the last few weeks we’ve talked a little bit too much about what we want to be with the ball,’ said Southgate.

‘If you are not bright without the ball, which we weren’t here, then you can have problems against any side.

‘International football is about prioritising, making the most of the time we have. We were actually excellent without the ball in our last three matches but we were a long way off that against Iceland. It’s a good reminder for us as a team. If you are off it as a collective without the ball then you can feel uncomfortable in the game and have problems.

‘Iceland played well but we gave them too much space and too much time and the game was too comfortable for them when they had possession.’

That was, in its own rational and understated way, a pretty damning assessment. Iceland will not be at the Euros this month. They finished fourth in their qualifying group, seven points behind Luxembourg in third. The last time they beat a nation of any standing at all before Friday was when they won against Romania in October 2020. In terms of a win against a major team, it was their infamous defeat of England in the 2016 Euros in France.

So Southgate knows well what this was and the frailties it exposed. Just before he spoke, Stones walked through the interview area with a strapping on his ankle. The Manchester City defender still expects to play against Serbia next weekend and it will be as part of a back four.

John Stones picked up a knock on Friday evening but is still expected to play against Serbia

John Stones picked up a knock on Friday evening but is still expected to play against Serbia

The precocious talent that is Jude Bellingham is still to return to the Three Lions after winning the Champions League with Real Madrid

The precocious talent that is Jude Bellingham is still to return to the Three Lions after winning the Champions League with Real Madrid

One school of thought is that Southgate could revert to the back three he used to effect in the last Euros. That would perhaps give his team a little more defensive security and also get Trent Alexander-Arnold in to the side as a wing-back.

But when that was put to him on Friday, Southgate said: ‘It’s not something we have talked about. It’s not a route we have been looking to go for sure.

‘Availability of players changes what you may do and what profile of player you may play in certain positions. But we have been on a good path without the ball against top-level opponents in Belgium and Brazil. Tonight we didn’t get that right.

‘We’ve already spoken after the game about what needs to be better. And we will be working through the detail of those things. Sometimes a performance like that can really sharpen the focus, sharpen the attention to the fundamentals of the game that have to be right.

‘I think there are a lot of factors we need to think about. There is the physical aspect. Is the balance right?

‘Of course when you’re one game away from a tournament there is also a little bit of not wanting to get injured and slightly different focus. I’ve played in those games myself. I understand some of the reasons for this but equally it is a jolt at a good time for us because we’ll have to get that preparation next week spot on. It means we’ll have an edge to things, which we need.’

Southgate has a point but anyone at Wembley on Friday night would recognise it wasn’t England’s intensity that wasn’t right, it was their football. There was no lack of effort but England were ragged at times, without fluency in attack and desperately vulnerable when they didn’t have the ball.

The arrival of Bellingham over the weekend after time off in the wake of the Champions League final will be of benefit. He will have a spring in his step. But the Real Madrid player isn’t going to win this tournament on his own.

Bellingham will play against Serbia along with Kane and Phil Foden. There may at least be a hint of competition between Palmer and Bukayo Saka for the spot on the right side. Saka came on against Iceland but it was the Arsenal player’s first football for almost a month.

Asked if two good performances had inserted Palmer in to the conversation, Southgate said: ‘No question. He’s had a fabulous season. He looked dangerous.

‘It was also good to get Bukayo on the pitch for half an hour. He has missed a lot of the training and we needed to see him out there as well.’

Time on the grass at their training camp in the east of Germany will at least give Southgate and his players the opportunity to put one rogue defeat into its proper perspective. England were much more ragged in the run-up the last World Cup and then hit their straps when they got to Qatar.

Bukayo Saka came off the bench against Iceland for his first half hour of football in around a month

Bukayo Saka came off the bench against Iceland for his first half hour of football in around a month

The Three Lions boss insisted that a good couple of showings from Cole Palmer had catapulted him into the discussion to start against Serbia on the right

The Three Lions boss insisted that a good couple of showings from Cole Palmer had catapulted him into the discussion to start against Serbia on the right

Southgate had his game face on after this defeat, though. When it was put to him that his team have more uncertainties presently then before any of the three previous tournaments on his watch, he didn’t disagree.

‘Well there are uncertainties physically,’ he said.

‘There is no question about that. That’s why we had to make the decision with Maguire and with Jordan Henderson as well.

‘But that’s the hand we have got. We have to play that in the most intelligent way. This performance gives me as the manager a real clear focus as to what we have to push next week.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *