Amidst the disappointment of losing the Euro 2020 final on penalties to Italy in July 2021, there was nevertheless hope that England’s national football team was continuing a steady progression that promised well for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
But in the last 15 months, that optimism has turned to doubt and worry as England and their coach Gareth Southgate seem to have lost their way.
Monday night’s 3-3 draw at home to Germany will partially lift England’s spirits as they prepare for the World Cup, after they showed grit and personality to come back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2, before a goalkeeping error from Nick Pope gifted the Germans an equalizer.
However, that result comes after a period where England’s progress seemed to run into a brick wall, and recent results mean they have been relegated to the second tier in the UEFA Nations League.
It all looked good for England with Southgate becoming a national hero in 2018, as he coaxed a series of brave performances from a team with obvious limitations, especially in midfield.
The arrival of youngsters such as Phil Foden, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips and Mason Mount promised to fill the gaps in midfield, and it was a more complete England that thrilled on the way to last year’s European final.
Since that European defeat, Southgate seems to have suffered a crisis of confidence, shuffling his squads and starting 11’s constantly and even picking a squad without a specialist left-back for the four matches in June.
He switched from the flat back four which worked well and allowed him to play another midfielder in the Euros, to a three-man defense with wing-backs for one game in June, then went back to a flat back four again for the other three games, which culminated in a 4-0 humiliation at home to Hungary.
Perhaps because of that, and perhaps also because he knows Harry Maguire lacks pace, he went back to three central defenders and wing-backs against Italy and Germany, but with mixed results.
Italy were able to pressure the back three and crowd out Rice and Bellingham in midfield on Friday, while on Monday night, Maguire’s lack of pace was exposed as he committed the penalty to give Germany their opening goal.
Maguire was England’s hero in 2018 with a series of towering displays, but he has suffered in the chaos at Manchester United for past 14 months and isn’t starting league games. Southgate’s loyalty is admirable, but he seems to be creating a handicap for himself and his side with that loyalty towards a player who is short of form and confidence.
The fact Southgate stuck with three central defenders against Germany and Italy implies that he will start with that formation when England kick off their World Cup campaign against Iran. However, he would do well to notice that England’s recovery started when Mason Mount, Jordan Henderson and Bukayo Saka got into the game. That gave England more control in midfield and Saka (playing in his natural position on the right, rather than as a lost left wing-back as he did against Italy) opened up the pitch.
England have the talent to go a long way, with Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Bellingham and Saka and other players such as Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford who didn’t even make Southgate’s last squad, but the chopping and changing of recent months means they will no longer travel among the top favorites.