ENGLAND’s recent results are an indication that change is needed, not necessarily in the management of the team, but in the composition of the squad and reassessment of the team that has served Gareth Southgate well. It is no coincidence that the sudden awareness that deterioration appears to have set in has come not when England are playing flat-track bullies against Europe’s makeweights and pretenders, it is in the UEFA Nations League. Traditionally, England don’t fare too well against Italy and Germany, but if you want evidence of worrying signs, it has to be in the games against Hungary.
The country that gave us Ferenc Puskás, Ferenc Bene and Flórián Albert has a reputation that is far removed from reality, but they beat England 4-0 and 1-0 in the Nations League. Since the Euro 2020 final in 2021, England have played the Magyars four times and the scorelines relect the steady decline of Southgate’s England: W4-0, D1-1, L0-1, L0-4.
There is a theory England’s morale was crushed by their defeat on penalties in the European Championship final against Italy, but they are professionals, they move on. What is becoming more and more obvious is that the Southgate side of 2018 to 2021 peaked in EURO 2020 and the World Cup semi-final and Euro final represented the culmination of its progress and achievements. It wasn’t the start of something, it was the end.
England’s form since that night at Wembley has been inconsistent if you look at it as whole, but if you consider the past season, it is remarkably bad. They have won seven of 14 games since June 2021 and have scored fewer goals (27) than any of the top 10 contenders for the World Cup bar Spain. While Argentina, Brazil and the Netherlands are unbeaten in that 14-game period, England have lost three times.
Their current run is five games without a win, the worst since the 1992-93 season, although not as bad as the 1980-81 campaign when England went eight games without a victory. But in today’s currency, five games could be enough to get a coach the sack, although it is unlikely Southgate will suffer that indignity. Most England managers resign, either by design or in a loaded pistol in a quiet room scenario. Southgate will surely leave the job after the 2022 World Cup.
Results since the start of 2021-22
England’s renaissance began with Southgate’s appointment and he was fortunate to have some promising talent to call on, notably Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City players. Naturally, the likes of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane carried the hopes of the nation, but neither reached the level of some of their opposite numbers around Europe. And in time, we may look back on Dele Alli as one of the greatest unfulfilled talents in an England shirt. We may look upon this squad as something of a silver generation.
Kane is a great goalscorer, but he’s rarely compared to players like Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappé, while Sterling has moved on from City to Chelsea in order to reassert himself. Ask yourself who are England’s most important players today, for it does look as though the conveyor belt of talent dried up for now? The side that lost to Italy in the Nations League included eight who had featured in the Euro 2020 final. There’s rich potential in the form of Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden, but there’s promise in every under-21 team that often doesn’t develop to fruition. England’s squad suddenly has the look of a group of players that have possibilities but there is no cast-iron guarantee it will go beyond that.
Without the goals of Kane, England are very blunt, as the recent tally has shown. Certainly some of the forwards being touted as England material suggest Southgate has no natural stand-in for the Tottenham talisman should he get injured. There are other concerns, such as the continued use of Manchester United’s Harry Maguire, who hasn’t been the same since his holiday incident. There is not finer header in the stopper sense of the word, but in the modern game, surely an England team needs a more dynamic central defender?
Sadly, the realisation that the England team of 2018-21 is in need of surgery comes with the World Cup just a couple of months away. There is really no time to reshape the team or the squad, so Southgate will have to reinvigorate his players to try and rekindle the spirit of those years. The facts cannot be ignored, though – this England team has limited mileage left and the past 15 months should have been recognised as a period of replenishment after two near misses in major competitions.