Two wins from two in their quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and all looks rosy for England heading into Wednesday’s home game against Poland.
A 2-0 win in Tirana over the weekend sent signals the Three Lions are roaming in the right direction, but with only one game to go before Gareth Southgate decides who makes his squad in June, the time to unlock England’s vast potential is fast running out.
The upcoming clash with Poland—currently second in World Cup qualifying Group I—is England’s best barometer of where they stand this international break following two routine results.
San Marino and Albania were never liable to truly test England’s resources, though those matches offered many clues as to how Southgate envisions his side lining up this summer. The manager has switched back to a four-man defense and preferred a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 setup, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Harry Kane swapping starts as the lone frontman.
But despite calling upon an ‘A’ team of those available in Tirana, Southgate’s side gave the impression they’re still discovering their identity despite the clear divide in talent between them and their hosts.
England's Starting Certainties?
West Ham United captain Declan Rice looks set to start in a pivot alongside Liverpool counterpart Jordan Henderson (provided he’s fit), with Mason Mount continuing to enamour himself as an England constant under Southgate. Raheem Sterling is another near-certainty to start, while Manchester City team-mate and rising national gem Phil Foden may well occupy another of those roles behind guaranteed frontman Kane.
Pragmatic though it may seem, loading the midfield so generously can take away from the more direct approaches that often lead to end product in much less time. England are hardly strangers to being slightly bamboozled against teams more inclined to defend deep (see: Denmark, Czech Republic), issues evident at times against an Albanian side intent on isolating their key men:
And it worked to good effect for much of the game. Sure, the hosts saw 31 percent of possession and failed to record a shot on target, but restricting their guests and the overwhelming favorites to only four of their own was, in a way, a small victory.
The Harry Kane Compliment
The trip to Tirana would have been an ideal one to test completely new tricks in the run-up to Euro 2020, albeit in one not without risk. England are blessed to have a generational striker as talented as Kane, but one could argue organising one’s midfield and wings to specifically optimise him isn’t optimal on the whole.
The Tottenham Hotspur talisman has 15 assists for his club this season—more than the previous three campaigns combined—suggesting he could have a greater role to play splitting time between finishing chances and providing them. Kane isn’t just the best striker England possess but outright one of the best players, with the potential to offer more if some of the spotlight was actually taken off him up front.
Single-striker systems have become a fashion among the world’s best, but other elite nations often operate the same formation with subtle nuance to get the best out of their team, not just the one leading it.
Bayern Munich winger Serge Gnabry has adopted a role as Germany’s ‘center forward’ of choice, while Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann often rotate around Olivier Giroud for world champions France. Brazil even somehow find a way to fit three strikers—Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison—into the same XI on a frequent basis (not accounting for a fit Neymar).
A more malleable England, for example, might find other ways to fit the likes of Calvert-Lewin or Jack Grealish—each having career-best seasons for Everton and Aston Villa, respectively—into the starting setup. That could require reverting to three at the back with slightly less focus on cramming in all of their best midfielders to start, but it’s increasingly clear tactics, not strictly personnel, often provide the keys to success in modern soccer.
An embarrassment of riches resigned to the bench
The same logic applies in deciding to leave certain assets on the bench, with the faith those replacements will be able to make an impact later in games but in more natural positions. The threat here is a coach may feel greater risk of falling behind in a game without said players on the field to begin with; that’s where the ‘faith’ in one’s own tactics comes in.
Jadon Sancho is one England star who has missed this international break due to injury, and despite his struggles for form at Borussia Dortmund earlier this season, there’s little doubt he’ll be part of the squad for Euro 2020. The same is likely to the case for Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and possible Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, whose flexibility in numerous roles makes him hard to omit.
It’s impossible to name a lineup comprising Sancho, Rashford, Sterling, Foden, Mount and Kane without leaving some continental-size gaps in their wake, but such is the quality England are guaranteed to have on their bench (and should capitalise on):
Calvert-Lewin, 24, is another among that number of extremely promising talents alongside Villa’s Ollie Watkins, who recently scored on debut against San Marino.
And yet, neither player is likely to be considered for a start under the current, rigid structure due to the presence of Kane. England are spoiled for young and upcoming creators, but it’s not like the country has any recent history in wasting midfielders wedged into the team in unnatural positions.
Having a player of Kane’s caliber can often be a curse as much as it is a blessing. Rival teams may find it that much easier to nullify one’s primary weapons, as Belgium did when they beat the Three Lions for the second time in as many meetings last November (both ending 2-0):
Aidy Boothroyd’s England recently made an 0-2 start in Group D at the European Under-21 Championship despite their squad being hailed highly coming into the competition. The Young Lions are likely to exit in the first stage for the second time in as many tournaments, an embarrassing waste of riches given the wealth of clear individual quality at their disposal.
Their senior equivalents, meanwhile, are getting the results they need, but recent good-but-not-great performances risk familiar disappointment when it comes to facing the bigger nations. England have the canvas and tools to paint a Euro 2020 masterpiece, but a lack of imagination from Southgate threatens to leave their summer looking more worthy of a place on the fridge than in the Louvre.