Gareth Southgate is worried. Not about England’s sudden lack of goals, how they have gone from free-scoring Euro 2020 qualifiers to blunt Nations League also-rans. His concern is more global and it relates to something that touches us all at present – the lack of any certainty from one week to the next; the difficulty of long-term planning.
The manager has one last Nations League match on Wednesday against Iceland at Wembley, which has been stripped of its competitive significance after Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Belgium in Leuven, followed by three World Cup qualifiers in March, which is unusual in itself. Then he has to name his squad for the European Championship. But if March feels like a long way away in the Covid climate, June is even more so.
“What we don’t know about March is what we will have available,” Southgate said. “It is really an unknown and I have to say a concern. In terms of the squad or the XI, we have been nowhere near in any of the three [get-togethers this season] to having a full squad to pick from. Nowhere near. And, as the season progresses – we will go through with no winter break – we don’t know who we will have at the end. So that would be the concern.”
Southgate mentioned the lack of a winter break, unprompted, on two separate occasions and he is unhappy that Premier League sides can make only three substitutions, which is out of step with major European leagues.
The manager has already spoken about his frustration over the packed schedule, which he predicted would lead to injuries that have come to pass during this international break. The most serious was Joe Gomez’s knee problem, which came under no challenge in training and needed surgery. Ben Chilwell and Jordan Henderson went off with muscle problems against Belgium. Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are among other players who are out.
What has vexed Southgate is that England have managed the players’s training loads meticulously, giving some – including Gomez, Henderson and Sterling – extra recovery time after the Premier League’s most recent set of fixtures, and yet injuries have still happened.
Southgate said last Thursday he hoped Harry Kane would win his 50th cap against Belgium “because it would mean we’d have got through another couple of days without losing another player”. The gallows humour did not mask the vulnerability he has come to feel, the powerlessness, and it has played a part in his move from 4-3-3 to the 3-4-3 system that is attracting criticism.
Playing mainly in 4-3-3, England scored 37 goals in eight European Championship qualifying ties – a competition high – while they recorded other notable results, most impressively the 3-2 away win over Spain in the Nations League a little over two years ago. Playing mainly in 3-4-3 in the Nations League this season, the team have scored three goals in five games – one a heavily deflected Mason Mount shot, the other two penalties.
The difference in the quality of the opposition should not be overlooked. It was pretty straightforward in Euro qualifying, although when England played their hardest game, away to the Czech Republic, they lost. Belgium and Denmark in the Nations League have been altogether tougher.
England did create chances against Belgium on Sunday – a surprising number – only to lack a clinical edge but, based on the campaign as a whole and the paucity of the goal return, Southgate finds himself in the firing line over his preference for three central defenders and two holding midfielders in Henderson and Declan Rice. In short, it deprives the team of an extra attacking player.
Southgate has come to enjoy the security of 3-4-3 because it leaves England less exposed to the loss of key players. He has only one left-back in Chilwell and probably only one out-and-out defensive midfielder in Rice. What would happen if, wedded to 4-3-3, he were to lose one or both? At best it would lead to square pegs in round holes.
In 3-4-3, Southgate can use Chilwell at left wing-back plus Bukayo Saka or even Kieran Trippier and Ainsley Maitland-Niles while the requirement for a pure midfield pivot is diluted. Moreover, he argues he can easily turn the dial towards a more attacking setup within the formation.
For example, he brought on Jadon Sancho at right wing-back against Belgium and Harry Winks in central midfield, where Mount is another option. Saka is more of a winger than a defender on the left.
Yet nagging away is the feeling that with a host of highly regarded, attack-minded players, Southgate ought to be trying to accommodate more of them. What will happen, for example, to Jack Grealish, England’s man of the moment, who has played off the left wing, if Southgate persists with 3-4-3 when Sterling and Rashford are fit?
“We have always said we need to be flexible,” the manager said. “People can be obsessed with systems but it is about the players and the different profile of players. We have got to have an open mind depending on who is available.”
Southgate has been happy at the emergence of the clutch of players he believes have provided him with greater depth. Grealish has been the standout but Reece James, Tyrone Mings, Conor Coady, Saka, Kalvin Phillips and Dominic Calvert-Lewin have pressed their claims, while Kyle Walker and Eric Dier have restated theirs. In this most demanding of seasons, the England manager needs the broadest of bases.