Three more games. That’s it. Just three more rehearsals before opening night in Qatar when England face Iran in their World Cup opener. If Gareth Southgate hoped to see his team tick over during this run of four Uefa Nations League fixtures with a touch of experimental rotation on the side then he was wrong.
Prior to showtime at the Khalifa International Stadium it seems that more of a sitzprobe is required during England’s preparations to remove any disjointedness. There looked little need for such treatment after a qualification campaign that was well navigated by Southgate and his players, but suddenly England look a little jaded and have begun to drift.
Results against Hungary, Germany and Italy have left England rooted to the base of their Nations League group, and there is now the mounting prospect of relegation from the competition’s top tier. However, it is the performances that are more of a worry. England have lacked impetus in each and at times on Saturday evening it felt like minds were closer towards a beach than central England.
Of course, there are mitigating factors. All of this is taking place at the end of a gruelling 10-month season which has pushed most players beyond their physical and mental limits. England are not the only team experiencing a wearisome end to the campaign: Spain have drawn twice, Belgium lost and drew while France are also yet to win any of their last three. There is a collective fatigue across European football.
What’s more, the minimal crowd at Molineux of 3,000 schoolchildren hardly induced an atmosphere which urged England’s players on. It felt more school fair than competitive international action at times, and Southgate lamented afterwards that “the emotional reaction just wasn’t there”.
However, England’s displays can’t be sugar-coated entirely. For all of Southgate’s positivity — and rightly so with England having reached a World Cup semi-final and a first final in 55 years in their last two international tournaments — there is a realism dawning that his team are starting to fluff their lines just at the wrong time.
Suddenly there are things for Southgate to fix
It is no more apparent than in attack. England haven’t scored from open play in their three games this month, with Harry Kane’s late penalty against Germany the only time Southgate’s team have found the back of the net. 1-0, 1-1, 0-0 is a piece of unwanted binary code. “We’re very, very reliant on Harry and Raheem [Sterling] for our goals at the moment and that is a concern,” Southgate said after Saturday’s goalless draw with Italy in which Kane started on the bench as part of the manager’s rotation of the team.
“We keep working on getting balls into the right areas, but in the end in the attacking areas the quality of play is crucial. There’s been a little bit of a lack of sharpness in those areas across the three matches, really. I think we had the players on the pitch today, we made the changes that we hoped would refresh the team as well, but we also played an Italian team that were very well organised.
“We had a long discussion [on Friday] about needing to control games better, which is a desire without a doubt, but controlling games with possession doesn’t guarantee the goals. In the end if you don’t score then you end up open to criticism, as I’m sure we will be.”
Kane’s 12 goals during World Cup qualification was head and shoulders above any of his teammates. Centre-back Harry Maguire scored the second-most (4). England’s top two assist-makers were Phil Foden, who has been absent from this month’s matches due to Covid, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is yet to be fully embraced by the national team.
In recent matches, England have accumulated 14 shots on target without appearing fully fluid in attack. The quality of their chances have not been good enough. Against Italy Tammy Abraham was given a chance to stake his claim as Kane’s deputy but despite tireless work left the field without making an impact.
Mason Mount has been a regular under Southgate but will need to freshen up and showcase his talents more clearly when back in an England shirt in the final warm-up games in September. The Chelsea attacker has started all three England games this month, and was deployed in the No 10 role at Molineux, but is yet to create a big chance. He struck Gianluigi Donnarumma’s crossbar and had the ball gone in that would have been his first goal for the national team since March last year.
There were some more positive takeaways from Saturday. Not least Aaron Ramsdale’s handful of fine saves to keep a clean sheet, Declan Rice’s runs from midfield and Southgate’s positive set-up using a 4-2-3-1. Yet, it wasn’t until a swap to 4-3-3 and the introduction of Kane, Jarrod Bowen and Kalvin Phillips that England established any semblance of control.
Rather it had been the inexperienced Italian side sent out by Roberto Mancini who had looked the hotter prospects. The reigning European champions aren’t even attending the World Cup after play-off heartbreak against North Macedonia in March. England can’t take their play in Qatar for granted. If they are to make the most of the opportunity ahead of them, then some life needs to be shaken into them…and quickly.