After superb campaigns at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2020, the England national team have chosen the worst possible time to hit a slump.
Gareth Southgate’s England are stuck in a rut right now, and they have failed to win the last five matches across all competitions. The Three Lions have been relegated to the UEFA Nations League B after failing to win five group matches in a row.
With the 2022 FIFA World Cup on the horizon, the alarm bells will be ringing, and Southgate will be under tremendous pressure to get his side back on the right track. Here at The Hard Tackle, we look at five things the England manager needs to do in order to get his side firing on all cylinders again.
Over the last few matches, Gareth Southgate has looked like a manager who is clueless with regards to his tactical approach. England have deployed four different formations in their last five matches. The Three Lions have shaped up in a 4-3-3, a 3-4-3, a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-2-1 formation recently.
Heading into a major tournament, one would have expected England to have settled on a formation by now and have their combinations in place. Instead, the players are still struggling to adapt to their roles in different setups, and the Three Lions are far from having a settled starting lineup.
Focus on youth
One of the many reasons I admire Trent Alexander-Arnold as a professional and a person is that he keeps reporting for England duty even though he knows that the manager, Gareth Southgate, does not really believe in him. It's sad, it's a waste, and it's England's loss. #ENG #LFC
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) September 26, 2022
England are blessed with some of the best young players in the world right now, but Gareth Southgate has not been able to tap into the vast reserves of potential the Three Lions possess.
Players like Jack Grealish, James Maddison, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fikayo Tomori, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and Phil Foden are yet to be adequately utilised by the England manager.
All of these players have established themselves as pivotal figures for their respective clubs in the Premier League or the Bundesliga. And it is time Southgate started trusting them to deliver consistently on the international level as well.
Sort out the left-back role
England have a wealth of options in their full-back departments, but Southgate has not been able to settle on his first-choice left-back yet. While the likes of Kieran Trippier, Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell have been used as the left-backs from time to time, the England head coach has used wingers like Bukayo Saka in that position as well.
Saka looked like a fish out of water against Italy when deployed as the left wing-back, and that rendered England vulnerable defensively and limited his attacking potential as well. Southgate will have to make tactical choices that get the best out of his players instead of rendering them ineffective.
The likes of Shaw and Chilwell are still struggling for match fitness, and England need to get them ready for the 2022 FIFA World Cup instead of the constant chopping and changing in that position.
Balanced team selections
— Gary Lineker ?? (@GaryLineker) September 23, 2022
Southgate has been often blamed for picking teams that lack tactical balance. It was once again evident against Italy last time out as the midfield was outmanoeuvred easily by the opposition. While Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice put in impressive performances, Italy had more numbers in the middle and thus dominated possession.
Southgate chose a formation with three centre-backs and two wing-backs. Reece James and Bukayo Saka were mostly hugging the touchline, resulting in a lot of space for Italy to exploit in the middle of the pitch.
The midfielders would have been helped greatly if Southgate had chosen a full-back who is capable of drifting into the centre of the pitch from time to time and dictating the tempo of the play while acting like an auxiliary playmaker, bringing Trent Alexander-Arnold into the picture.
Similarly, using Saka in his natural role would have enabled the young winger to express himself better in the final third. Instead, the Italian attackers enjoyed taking him on as the wing-back, and they did not have to worry about his attacking quality either.
Furthermore, the attackers, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, were left isolated for most parts of the game. Having a creative midfielder behind them would have caused all sorts of problems for the Italy backline.
England have been overly reliant on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling to score goals in recent years. The Three Lions have a number of players who can chip in consistently with goals, and Southgate needs to design his setup in a way that gets the best out of these players.
The likes of Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, and Phil Foden have all scored important goals at the club level, but they are largely underused in the national set-up. England will need to see their attackers share the goalscoring burden if they want to succeed at the top level, and particularly, the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
For now, it is quite easy for the opposition to nullify the England attack by marking Kane and Sterling out of the game. Heading into a major competition like the World Cup, England will have to find different options that can pose different questions to the opposition defence.