Another international break is here, and Gareth Southgate has reasons to be excited and terrified in equal measure.
With the weekend’s, shall we say, eventful round of Premier League fixtures behind us, England are back. But what happened in those same fixtures seem like a microcosm for what the Three Lions are going to have to deal with over their next few games.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that England have one of the best front threes in international football. But the same sentiment cannot be echoed for their goalkeeping and centre back situations.
With Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling, England’s attacking options are up there with those of Belgium, France and Germany. Gareth Southgate’s side are a constant threat to score. Since the somewhat prophetic 0-0 draw against Croatia in an empty Stadion Rujevica in October 2018, England have scored 44 goals in their last 15 matches. That’s an almost three goal a game average.
The front line is good.
What makes this international break interesting is the depth and influx of attacking talent England seem to have.
The usual front three suspects (Sterling, Kane and Sancho) were all called up for the three matches against Wales, Belgium and Denmark. Everyone’s favourite footballer right now, Marcus Rashford, was also called up – and he, again, is normally a part of the set-up. There have also been call ups for Tammy Abraham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Danny Ings. Mason Greenwood impressed enough towards the end of last season to be included in the squad for the previous two matches against Iceland and Denmark.
Meanwhile, Harry Kane’s ‘new’ position has seemed to pique some interest. When Tottenham Hotspur beat Southampton 5-2 on the 20th of September, a lot was made of how Kane dropped deep and played the passes forward to Heung-Min Son, who was running beyond him. And rightly so – he assisted on all four of Son’s goals whilst still managing to get on the scoresheet himself.
“Harry Kane, in my opinion, changed the game,” said Jose Mourinho, when talking about the second half of that match.
“His movement was tremendous, his link play was absolutely incredible, and he allowed Son to play in a different position.”
Despite Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s “two or three little points” for Spurs before they faced his old club, Kane was indeed incredible – and he appeared in similar positions when Spurs beat Manchester United 6-1 this weekend. He sat deeper at times, and Son was the one furthest forward. Kane again assisted him for Tottenham’s second.
But dropping deeper is something he’s done before for England, if not incredibly often. In the 2018 World Cup, more than likely due to Southgate’s 3-5-2, he was the one who would retrieve the ball in more withdrawn positions, and look for Sterling’s forward runs as a way to bring England up the pitch.
Is this the way England will play now? Yes. No. Maybe? With players that are essentially wide forwards for their clubs it’s certainly a possibility. Sterling plays on the left and cuts in for Manchester City (scoring 20 goals last season) and he scored this weekend against Leeds doing just that. Sancho, again, cuts in and appears centrally for Borussia Dortmund and scored 17 goals in the Bundesliga last year. Rashford and Greenwood flank Martial at Old Trafford and scored 17 and 10 goals in the league respectively last season.
Abraham, Calvert-Lewin and Ings must provide something different it seems.
Abraham scored 15 goals last year, even if he’s now behind Timo Werner at Chelsea, and Ings scored only one goal fewer than the Premier League’s top scorer, Jamie Vardy, last season. Being central strikers it’s hard for them to break into the side above Kane, but that’s what makes Dominic Calvert-Lewin such an intriguing proposition.
If Southgate doesn’t want someone to drop deep, and feels that his midfield can help get the team forward and bring others into play, Calvert-Lewin (in current form) would prove useful. He was called a “complete striker” by Carlo Ancelotti, although many would say that he’s not as complete as Kane.
Emulating Filippo Inzaghi was the challenge set by his manager, as Ancelotti wanted Calvert-Lewin to become more of a poacher.
“I was guilty of doing a lot of my best work away from the goal,” said Calvert-Lewin when talking about his goal scoring.
“Now I’m focusing on getting in-between the sticks and putting the ball in the back of the net.
“Not to say that I’m a carbon copy of Pippo Inzaghi, but there are elements of his game that I’ve been showing in my game at the moment.”
Calvert-Lewin has scored nine goals in six games so far this season. All have been after taking very few touches, and all have been in the box. He’s shown his strength and ability in the air, along with great movement in the penalty area. Not to describe Calvert-Lewin as ‘just’ a poacher, or to claim that he’s a better finisher than Kane, but he provides more depth and a different option for England in the forward areas.
But Kane has been England’s number nine, captain, and focal point for so long. Playing as the furthest man forward is why he’s got 32 goals in 47 caps. But does he need a rest? It has been a point of contention recently, so don’t be surprised if Dominic Calvert-Lewin gets his first cap for England in a start against Wales.
While getting the ball in the back of the net doesn’t seem like it will be a problem for England, keeping it out of their own net might be.
After this weekend, the goalkeeping situation seems bad. However, it doesn’t appear to be a serious concern.
Of the three goalkeepers selected for England by Southgate, Dean Henderson had the best weekend by simply not playing.
Nick Pope’s poor touch in his own box, then dive at the feet of Ryan Fraser, gave Newcastle a penalty and their third goal in Burnley’s 3-1 loss. Not a fantastic omen when Southgate wants to play out from the back.
Jordan Pickford, meanwhile, made his own mistake that cost Everton a goal against Brighton. He couldn’t catch Trossard’s shot when it bounced straight at him, then he kindly dropped the ball to Maupay who scored. It was another error to, sadly, add to the list. But it didn’t cost Everton, as they won 4-2.
Ancelotti didn’t seem too worried, saying: “Nothing happened – we have three points.”
So, Pickford shouldn’t fear losing his place. Southgate obviously has confidence in him, and rightly so – some of the best performances of Pickford’s career have come for England. He’s shown he can make big saves and his distribution has proved key for mounting counter attacks in the past.
The people in front of Pickford probably will be fearing for their places. This weekend the centre back play was ugly. At best.
Two of the centre backs called up, and the two that would arguably be the first-choice pairing, played in back lines on Sunday that let in 13 goals between them.
Harry Maguire’s lack of pace has been an issue for Manchester United for longer than just this season. You could also argue that he was at fault for three of Tottenham’s goals this weekend. Pulling down his own teammate, who was trying to clear the ball, was probably his lowest moment against Spurs – and Ndombele scored because of it.
Joe Gomez didn’t fare much better on Sunday. Liverpool lost 7-2 against Aston Villa, and the centre back was substituted in the 61st minute for his troubles. He made several errors at Villa Park, none more glaring than his loose pass to Georginio Wijnaldum that was intercepted by Ollie Watkins. This quickly led to Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley exchanging passes and subsequently Villa’s fifth goal.
Both Maguire and Gomez are more than struggling for form. John Stones must be rueing the fact he’s not got a decent run for Manchester City in so long. That and the £60 million spent on Ruben Dias.
Because of the play of Maguire and Gomez, we may get a look at a Michael Keane and Eric Dier partnership at some point in the next week, or possibly a return to the 3-5-2. Many of the other defenders in the squad are used to playing with three centre backs for their clubs – including Conor Coady, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka. Plus, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier played well in that system during the 2018 World Cup.
It all depends on what Gareth Southgate wants to do. He may tweak some things against Wales. That’s what International Friendlies are for, right?
Obviously, Greenwood and Sterling aren’t going to appear in the next three games, and that could mean Harvey Barnes and Jack Grealish play in more forward-thinking roles for England. Grealish plays out wide for Aston Villa, allowing him to see the whole pitch and create, while Barnes can play close to the striker – as he does for Leicester.
Everything considered, we’ll soon see how Southgate decides to set England up. But one thing is for sure – he has choices to make, both good and bad.