Gareth Southgate needs to be direct with his approach against Germany

Southgate chose players in the group stage who were happy to receive the ball at their feet but were hesitant to stretch the opposition's defence with their movements.

England players in a practice session; Image credit: Twitter/England

With the group stage done and dusted, the major takeaway from England’s performance is their passing game, which has been pedestrian and predictable. The Three Lions have a strong defensive shape, which has shown in their performance, as they have yet to concede a goal in the tournament. As good as it sounds, they are unable to quickly shift the ball from defence to offence to threaten the opposition. They enjoyed the bulk of possession in all three group matches but failed to make the most of it. Their movements are too slow and their passing game is no different, making it easier for the opponents to defend against them. When they take on Germany in the Euro 2020 last-16, England need to add variety to their game if they are to have any chance of beating Joachim Low’s side.

Seven points from a possible nine in the group stage makes for good reading, however, it does not say the whole story. England have scored only two goals and both have come from Raheem Sterling. Their captain and star striker Harry Kane has been a shadow of his usual self. On the back of an impressive display with Tottenham Hotspur, the 27-year-old was expected to transform the club form into the international stage. However, Kane’s form has been worrying till now. In Kane’s defence, England have not been playing a fluid attacking game, denying him frequent opportunities to test the opposition goal.

A promising group of players

On the back of reaching successive semifinals in the 2018 World Cup and UEFA Nations League, England were expected by many to take the next step in this Euro. When head coach Gareth Southgate selected a talented bunch of young players for Euro 2020, the excitement around the squad’s potential was evident among the fans. Right-back Reece James is the youngest defender in the squad at 21 – same as Phil Foden (Man City) and Jadon Sancho (Dortmund), while promising Arsenal youngster Bukayo Saka is only 19.

Midfielders Mason Mount (Chelsea) and Declan Rice (West Ham) are just 22, while Jude Bellingham of Borussia Dortmund – the youngest player in the entire squad – is just 17 years old. Marcus Rashford (23), Jack Grealish (25), and Dominic Calvert-Lewin (24) might have been playing club football for a while but they are relatively young as well.

The fans’ optimism grew fast as this demonstrated that the Three Lions were also focused on the future. Besides, young players are known for playing a fearless brand of football, which many believed how England would approach the tournament. But the early signs are not promising. Southgate’s cautious approach is denying these players the opportunity to express themselves.

It was even more evident in the second game against Scotland, which ended 0-0. The coach was criticised for not being brave in a match where England were the clear favourites on the paper. Explaining about it, Southgate said, “It’s easy to gamble towards the end, and lose shape, and then end up losing the game in the last five minutes, then you’re kicking yourself for not managing the tournament. I understand we’re at Wembley, we wanted to win, but in the context of the tournament qualification is the most important thing.”

Direct runners

What the squad lacked in the group stage are players who can be direct and run behind the opposition defence. The batch of players who were selected in the group phase are happy to drop back and receive the ball at their feet but not many are willing to run behind the opponents backline. Foden and Sterling who played on the right and left-wing in the initial two games are molded in the Manchester City way. Normally, Pep Guardiola’s sides love to retain the ball at all costs and it was no surprise to see them showing eagerness to receive the ball.

However, what Southgate’s squad lacked from Guardiola’s system is a lack of output – there was no variety in the play. In the first two matches, all the players seemed to be happy receiving the ball, rather than breaking out of their passing shell. They were too predictable, making it easy for the opponents to close down Kane or other players in the penalty box effectively. There was no surprise element in their play.

Saka shines

It was no surprise to see Bukayo Saka gain a lot of limelight for his performances against Czech Republic in their final group match. Saka was a breath of fresh air, which England desperately needed. He was direct with his play, showing no fear in dribbling at people. The teenager cut inside, went outside, bamboozling the opponent defenders. Anyone who has followed Saka will notice that it is nothing new, as the youngster is known to do it on a weekly basis at Emirates.

But what made his display special was the fact none of the other England players were as direct as him. Barring the two goals, Sterling’s performances have been mediocre, while Foden’s movements have become predictable as he often wants to cut inside on to his strong left foot. It’s the unpredictability which England lacked. Rashford and Sancho can offer that something different, but both have been limited to substitute appearances.

Next up is a clash against their fierce rivals Germany in the round-of-16. It is not a game where England will enjoy the same vast amount of possession. Hence, it is imperative to make the most of the opportunities that comes their way. They need to be direct with their play and for that to happen Southgate needs to have players in his Starting XI, who are willing runners. England must add variety in their game to have any chance of beating a strong German side.




WRITTEN BY
Sportslumo Desk

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