For the first time in more than a generation England entered the Autumn international break without having to begin again from scratch, the positivity following their surprise semi-final appearance at the World Cup ensuring the rarest of traits in England: continuity. It came as no surprise when Gareth Southgate made just three changes from
the 23-man World Cup squad and nobody seemed to mind that several promising young players were left out. Two fairly meak performances, against Spain and Switzerland, have shifted perceptions.
Southgate was right to remain loyal to the squad that overachieved in the summer but after two tepid matches in September he is now free to make bigger changes, ushering in the next generation of young footballers and attempting to patch up some of the flaws that were overlooked in Russia. It is worth remembering that England lost every game they played against good opposition and only scored once from open play all summer. If the nation is to keep building Southgate needs to make some ruthless decisions.
The biggest concern at the moment is in central midfield, a position in which England clearly lack both a ball-playing defensive midfielder in the Michael Carrick mould and a creative player that can weave between the lines. Dele Alli is essentially a second stiker while Jesse Lingard is an inside forward, which helps explain why neither flourished as number tens at the World Cup.
Fortunately for England, Southgate has options. Nathaniel Chalobah, returning from a season-long injury at Watford, is an excellent choice to hold down the midfield, while both Phil Foden and Harry Winks should be given opportunities to play the Carrick-role. Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson have had long enough to show their worth; at least one should be dropped altogether to make room for a hungrier, fresher set of sprightly midfield players.
Higher up the pitch, Southgate’s search for the new Paul Gascoigne should lead him to Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, a swaggering playmaker with the ability to dart clear of opponents in tight spaces. In terms of stature and playing style he has all the attributes to become a leading figure for England. Southgate could also turn to James Maddison, who has made an excellent start to life in the Premier Lerague with Leicester City from central attacking midfield. Elsewhere, Jadon Sancho deserves a call-up having impressed at Borussia Dortmund, although England are well-stocked in this area with Raheem Sterling and Lingard coming off the flanks.
Perhaps the biggest problem Southgate faces before Euro 2020 is evolving the formation away from a 3-5-2, which works well against weak opponents but leaves England too light in midfield against superior passing sides like Spain. He needs to start playing with three genuine central midfielders, which means adding to the squad and moving on some of the country’s more senior players.
Their first game next month, away at Croatia, is a fantastic opportunity to experiment. England were outplayed for most of their World Cup semi-final, handing Southgate the excuse he needs to dramatically alter the tactics and team selection; against Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, England need some ball-playing midfielders in deeper positions. Chabolah and Winks deserve the nod.
It might seem brutal so soon after the World Cup, but constant adaptation is the only way to survive in modern football. There are four or five youngsters in England who can feel bitterly disappointed if they fail to make the squad for the October Nations League matches.
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