3 reasons England is dysfunctional at Euro 2024 - and how to fix them

https://assets-cms.thescore.com/uploads/image/file/633725/w1080xh810_New_Project__12_.jpg?ts=1718925362

Gareth Southgate has strayed far past his remit as England manager, extending himself beyond team talks and tactics to achieve a huge medical breakthrough at Euro 2024.

His team can cure insomnia.

Granted, four points and a first-place standing in Group C isn't disastrous, but the Three Lions' ability to bore, to sit back and let football happen to them, is arguably unrivaled by any other team at the tournament. England possesses players who are among the most entertaining and effective in the European club game - Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, and Harry Kane to name a few - but Southgate has produced a side that is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

So, what's going wrong?

Sitting back

England took the lead through Bellingham's emphatic 13th-minute header in its opening match against Serbia. On Thursday, Kane grabbed the first goal of his campaign when he poked a deflected cutback into Denmark's net in the 18th minute.

There seemed to be little inclination for England to score another in either match.

As a pragmatist, Southgate may think the best way to deliver three points in the group stage is to use his embarrassment of riches in attack to take the lead and then hold on to it.

That approach is flawed in three ways.

First, it relies on England's defense and the unresolved base of its midfield to hold firm. John Stones had fitness issues throughout the 2023-24 club season and Marc Guehi started alongside Stones just once - a humbling 4-0 home defeat to Hungary in June 2022 - before the players reported for England duty in June. And ahead of that unfamiliar backline, Trent Alexander-Arnold (more on him later) starts with Declan Rice, forming a central midfield combination that was tested to mixed results against Malta and North Macedonia (twice) in 2023 before being reintroduced for England's group meeting with Serbia.

Second, perhaps sitting deep with a lead would work better if England had more spring to its attacks. Marcus Rashford was omitted from the squad and Anthony Gordon has been an unused substitute over England's first two matches - and they're arguably the most gifted counterattackers in Southgate's talent pool. The manager has created a game plan that's tailor-made for two players he doesn't use.

Third, surely the most pragmatic approach would be to carry on attacking? The defense and midfield aren't wholly reliable but the attack is the envy of most teams in world football. When England sits back, it's not playing to its strengths.

Southgate suggested after Thursday's 1-1 draw with Denmark that the team adopting deeper positions was due to failures in its press and a general unease while its opponent chased an equalizer. While England barely survived Serbia's pursuit of a goal last Sunday, Denmark's Morten Hjulmand leveled just 16 minutes after Kane's finish.

"We have to accept that we didn't press with enough intensity. We kept conceding possession too easily. When you do those things it's hard to have control, it led to an anxious performance," Southgate said.

"We have to be better if we are to progress to the later stages of the tournament and deliver what everyone expects us to do."

Issues out wide

Left-backs are a rare commodity in English football. This dearth of talent was underlined when Luke Shaw earned a call-up for Euro 2024 after starting 12 Premier League matches - and none since mid-February - during an injury-ravaged campaign with Manchester United.

Shaw has yet to be used in Germany while Kieran Trippier, a right-back, covers the left side.

Trippier is unspectacular at left-back and habitually narrows the pitch when he shifts the ball onto his stronger right foot. He simply won't overlap the winger and cross with his left trotter. Sometimes, an inverted full-back or wing-back can work spectacularly - like Joao Cancelo at Manchester City through the 2021-22 season or Italy's Leonardo Spinazzola before his unfortunate injury at the European Championship in 2021 - but Trippier can't produce the penetrative runs of players who've thrived in those roles. One of the key strengths of the 33-year-old's game is his delivery with his right foot - but he's yet to attempt a cross as a left-back at Euro 2024.

There's no natural width ahead of Trippier, either. Foden isn't unfamiliar with starting on the wing - he was regularly deployed to the right of Manchester City's attack en route to winning the Premier League Player of the Season award. But Foden's at his most dangerous when he finds space through the middle, links up with his teammates, and shoots with the venom and flick of a scorpion's tail. Foden fired four shots from central areas against Denmark, including one that struck the post. That fact he's attempted two crosses - both unsuccessful - across both of his Euro 2024 appearances shows how little Foden works on the flank.

Richard Pelham / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The opposing full-back has a fairly short job list when dealing with Foden and Trippier. Most of the time, Foden moves inside out of possession, so the main duty is to shepherd Trippier onto his left foot or make him pass backward with his right foot.

The Shaw role is clearly important to Southgate - but did he consider other options? Ipswich Town's Leif Davis could be in the frame for an England call-up by the September international window due to his tendency to stay wide and supply the attackers with incredible service. The left-back led the Championship with 18 assists during Ipswich's promotion campaign. Fast-tracking Davis into the squad rather than summoning an unfit Shaw may have been a better decision.

Foden's performances should improve with a natural left-footed player providing the width and defensive support - and it would be a huge risk to drop someone of his supreme quality. With no changes allowed in Southgate's squad, England finds itself hugely reliant on Shaw getting fit.

Who partners Rice?

Rice earned his stripes in the Premier League as a No. 6 before flourishing at No. 8. After that switch, Tomas Soucek swept up behind him at West Ham United before Jorginho offered him the platform to stride forward at Arsenal.

England lacks players like Soucek and Jorginho and, in its desperation to protect the defense and liberate Rice, has revived the experiment of fielding Alexander-Arnold in midfield.

"He's had some moments where he's delivered what we thought he would. We know it's an experiment. We know we don't have a natural replacement for Kalvin Phillips," Southgate told BBC One about Alexander-Arnold's Euro 2024 performances after the Denmark draw.

"We're trying different things and at the moment we're not flowing as we'd like."

Richard Pelham / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Try to overlook the fact that England is experimenting during a major tournament. Of course, that's difficult to ignore when Southgate was wasting starts on Jordan Henderson - while he was playing in the limited Saudi Pro League - as recently as November and even included the veteran midfielder in his March squad. He could've trialed more viable options to partner Rice at that time. Still, let's look past that.

Alexander-Arnold is a right-back, but Southgate was presumably encouraged to use him as a midfielder at Euro 2024 because he started to assume a central role at Liverpool when his team had possession. The high standard of his diagonal passes to the wings and probing passes through the middle, when he has space, is undeniable (although that hasn't been evident so far this summer) but he can be a liability out of possession. Alexander-Arnold isn't a solid defender and this is painfully evident after he failed to produce a tackle or interception from the nucleus of Southgate's side against Denmark. He was substituted in the 53rd minute.

Bellingham could play alongside Rice - he can fulfill any central midfield role - and would be a threat with his late runs into the box, but Southgate may be reluctant to try this after the 20-year-old's season hoarding goals in an advanced position for Real Madrid. Conor Gallagher appears to be a strong candidate to partner Rice but is more of an industrious No. 8 than a composed No. 6. Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton are still trying to earn Southgate's trust, but Wharton may be the best option out of the young duo due to his physicality and obsession with passing forward to the attackers.

There are a lot of problems for Southgate to resolve before England can justify its pre-tournament favorites tag and make its fans believe the team can win Euro 2024. That starts with avoiding a sleep-inducing display against Slovenia next Tuesday and securing progression to the knockout rounds.

Copyright © 2024 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

×