England fall behind Belgium in the Nations League group, but a more pressing concern is whether England are falling behind the major nations in terms of approach.
This was the major question from a mostly drab 0-0 draw with Denmark, of otherwise minor consequence and strange context. It would be nice to win the Nations League, of course, but the nature of the competition – and the curious Covid-19 context of this match – means it is largely rife for experimentation. This, however, is one of the issues.
It doesn’t so much feel like Southgate is experimenting, as trying to work out his best team – and especially his best midfield. He looks no closer to solutions.
There are genuine questions there, not least regarding the cautious mindset of the line-ups, and some of the selections.
The biggest is whether Southgate will put out a team that actually makes this hugely talented squad any way better than the sum of their parts. It is no idle question, either.
Southgate has been immensely impressive in many parts of this job, especially as regards psychology, which is so crucial with the biggest international team.
The tactical aspect, however, is still the one that fosters doubt.
The approach at kick-off certainly didn’t foster coruscating football.
Even allowing for experimentation, and all manner of other caveats in the middle of pre-season, it’s difficult to know what Southgate saw in England’s starting formation. The problems were obvious on paper, and purely tactical. The biggest – literally – was that immense gap between the midfield two and the front three. Issues spread out from there.
Although the starting central duo of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice was predictably pedestrian, it might have worked if there was a real playmaker in front of them. Phil Foden was even more conspicuous by his absence in that regard, but Southgate does have other options. He eventually brought two of them on, in Jack Grealish and Mason Mount. That was only after a whole lot of nothing – not least the space between these two key positions.
Kane is said to fancy himself as more of a No 10 than a striker, which made it all the more curious that he spent so much of the game so far forward. That had the effect of pushing Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho further wide, to occasionally get in the way of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier. And those very names raise the side question of why he selected three right-backs but no left-back.
The next was why the line-up as a whole had so many defensive-minded players, against a team that England are better than, and should be imposing their game on.
Instead, it was mostly Denmark with the better of the play, and the better of the chances.
Yussuf Poulsen and Kasper Dolberg both went close, as Denmark were capable of working the ball into the box.
England could do no such thing. They didn’t have enough creativity that deep. It meant the main outlet – time and again – were crossfield passes or balls over the top that were pretty, but mostly predictable.
There was one moment when, with nothing on, Jordan Pickford just shrugged and punted the ball forward to Sterling. Sterling naturally couldn’t do much with it, lost the ball, and just shrugged back.
Again, there was the obvious contrast. Denmark had Christian Eriksen and a number of players set up around him.
England had… defensive midfielders and some more long balls out wide.
Southgate persisted with that well into the second half, until the clarity of the problem eventually became as painful as some of the match. Mount was belatedly brought on for Jadon Sancho, to go in behind Kane and Sterling.
It was entirely logical that was when England finally started to work better positions. The positions of the players made more sense. Hovering behind the strikers, Mount was almost through when Alexander-Arnold picked him out with a supreme pass, that the playmaker just failed to control. Kane headed over moments later, before finally bringing an actual save from Kasper Schmeichel, and then having a late shot cleared off the line.
Late on, Southgate finally brought on Grealish. He and Rice formed England’s midfield.
It was the future Ireland could have had, a switch which has only made Southgate’s reluctance to use Grealish all the more notable.
That just feeds into the most notable question of all, over tactics.
Southgate has been blessed with a brilliant generation of English talent. He has man-managed them exceptionally. The great debate going into 2021, and Euro 2020, is whether he can really get them to fulfil that talent.