Set pieces, Kane and Covid curveballs: the big issues now facing England | David Hytner

England have advanced to the last 16 of Euro 2020 as the winners of Group D on the back of three clean sheets and being hard to play against. But with the serious business primed to get under way, Gareth Southgate has problems to manage and areas for improvement.

Covid curveballs

When Mason Mount was forced to isolate and miss the 1-0 win over the Czech Republic in Tuesday’s final group game, having been deemed a close contact of Scotland’s Billy Gilmour who tested positive for Covid on Monday, it was not as simple as slotting in a like-for-like replacement. There was a knock-on effect. Southgate is realistic enough to know that Mount will most likely not be ready for Tuesday’s last-16 game – his isolation will end the night before – and he grew worried about the possibility of losing another key attacker, Phil Foden, who is on a yellow card, to suspension. And so, with qualification confirmed by results elsewhere on Monday night, Southgate stood him down. The manager appeared to confirm that Mount and Foden had been in his original lineup when he said the pair were on set-piece detail in Monday morning’s training session. “So that wasn’t helpful,” Southgate said. Poor Foden; axed through no fault of his own. In came Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka, with the latter saying that he knew of his selection only on the morning of the game. The switch worked brilliantly, with Grealish and Saka excelling, but these are the kind of knife-edge calls that will continue to test Southgate.

Ben Chilwell, meanwhile, is also in isolation after the conversation with Gilmour that followed the 0-0 draw against Scotland on Friday and he had been in line to start against the Czechs. In the end, Luke Shaw kept his place at left-back. There remains the sense of bafflement inside the England camp over the isolation imposed on Mount and Chilwell – given that no Scottish players were considered as contacts of Gilmour. Public Health England is understood to have requested the footage of the players’ meeting in the Wembley tunnel as part of the investigation.

Set-piece woes

Without Mount or Foden – or Kieran Trippier, for that matter – England struggled with their set-piece delivery against the Czechs, with Kalvin Phillips and Shaw on corners, which reinforced a theme. At the 2018 World Cup, nine of England’s 12 goals came from set pieces (four corners, two free-kicks, three penalties; two of which were won on corners). Trippier was heavily involved. But at this tournament, the threat has been minimal. The closest England have come to a set-piece goal was when John Stones headed a Mount corner against the post in the Scotland game. “Our delivery hasn’t been good,” Southgate said. “There was the one where Stones hit the post which was bang on the money and Trippier’s delivery in the first game [the 1-0 win over Croatia] was excellent. We haven’t matched that since. It’s an area we can improve upon.” With Mount highly doubtful for the last 16 and Trippier having not featured against Scotland or the Czechs, Foden’s set-piece ability would seem to assist his case for a recall.

Lack of intensity over 90 minutes

England were full of drive and movement during the first half against the Czechs and then they weren’t. They were bright for the opening 20 minutes against Croatia before fading. And there was not much more than fits and starts against the Scots. Is the issue to do with mentality? Or game and tournament management? Southgate pretty much admitted that he closed down for the draw against Scotland with 15 minutes to go because to risk the point was not worthwhile, even though he knew the criticism would come. His explanation for the failure to maintain a high tempo relates to fitness and preparation difficulties. Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson have had well-documented injury problems and Grealish missed three months from mid-February. Then there was the raft of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea players who joined up late after their involvement in European club finals. Stones looked weary when substituted against the Czechs.

“There are a lot of players who are lacking a bit of match sharpness and match fitness and I am not sure there is a way round that,” Southgate said. “Some of the things we had to change against the Czech Republic, we couldn’t do on the training pitch and I thought they implemented a lot of them very well. They just weren’t able to do it for the full 90 minutes.”

Lack of incision

It is a historical issue but one that has been pronounced for the majority of England’s matches so far, particularly the one against Scotland – the struggle to unpick deep-sitting opponents. Southgate’s team like to strike on the counter or with balls over the top and into the channels but, when the space between the lines is compressed, they can be frustrated. It is one of the reasons why Saka’s performance against the Czechs was so enthusiastically received. Here was a 19-year-old with the confidence to run at defenders and break lines, to make things happen, most notably with the burst from inside his own half that led to the goal, scored by Raheem Sterling. Saka was a breath of fresh air. So, too, was the sight of Maguire striding forward midway through the first half to fizz a pass into Harry Kane, who had made a clever run. It led to the captain going close. “It’s important that we get the ball into the attacking players a bit quicker,” Southgate said. “In the first half against the Czech Republic, we managed to do that. Maguire’s pass for Kane’s chance was a fabulous one. That’s the type of thing we have to do a little bit more.”

Kane a concern

The first thing to say about Kane is that, after his travails against Croatia and Scotland, he was better against the Czechs. He provided the pre-assist for Sterling’s goal and, on his big chance, created by Maguire, he did almost everything right, spinning into a dangerous area, checking inside Tomas Kalas and unloading for the far corner. The goalkeeper, Tomas Vaclik, threw out a hand to save. But the feeling persists that Kane does not look up to speed and is hunting for involvement in the wrong areas – in other words, too far from goal. There is the hope that England can grow into the tournament, improving exponentially. Kane needs something to spark him and we all know what it is.