It had been a successful international break for England up until last night, with wins over Wales and Belgium, but Gareth Southgate got his tactics horribly wrong against Denmark and it showed.
The hashtag #SouthgateOut was buzzing around social media last night. That seems harsh. This is the manager that took England to their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years and, just days ago, beat FIFA’s number one ranked side Belgium.
Still, last night was a miserable affair and it highlighted some of the biggest flaws in Southgate’s coaching repertoire. As the final whistle sounded at Wembley, a 10-man England side had slumped to defeat at the hands of Denmark.
The general play was sloppy, and the goal itself felt avoidable — miscommunication in defence leading to a penalty, which Christian Eriksen duly dispatched. So, where did it go so wrong for Southgate?
No left-footed players
This issue is nothing new. England have a storied history of shoehorning right-footed players into their side on the left flank. Not since Chris Waddle have the Three Lions genuinely had a world class left-footed wide man. From Joe Cole to Paul Scholes, England have been filling a round hole with square pegs for years.
Southgate continued that trend last night, opting to deploy Harry Maguire, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Marcus Rashford down England’s left side. All three play on the left side for their clubs, but they also all have left-footed players around them. England looked awkward when playing out from the back and missed the obvious passing angles players like Tyrone Mings or Bukayo Saka could have provided.
Playing two holding midfielders in a 3-4-3
Both Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice are competent players, but neither were utilised effectively in England’s flat 3-4-3. For Leeds, Phillips plays as the sole holding midfielder, giving him greater license and room to operate. For West Ham, Rice sits alongside Tomáš Souček, but there is usually an attacking midfielder positioned in front of the duo.
With no number 10 on the field, England’s build-up play felt slow and one-dimensional. Phillips and Rice were both trying to do the same thing at times and it gave the whole system a rather clunky feel. If England are to play two of Phillips, Rice, Henderson and Winks, you really feel it needs to be in a three man midfield.
Adopting a cautious approach
There’s a distinct feeling that Southgate is trying to prepare England for games against tougher opposition. Games where his side are on the back foot and have to cede possession. The problem is, playing that way against teams that you’re as good as, if not better than, really doesn’t work.
England invited Denmark onto them last night and the Danes took advantage. Moving forward, Southgate needs to ensure his team have the tactical flexibility to be able to switch between this cautious 3-4-3 set up and a more expansive, free-flowing 4-3-3 formation.
Starting the out of form Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford
Both Maguire and Pickford have been in the firing line recently. Maguire’s off-season was littered with controversy following his trip to Greece, and he’s clearly not been at the same level he has in previous seasons. Southgate obviously felt starting the defender and allowing him to play through this dip in form was the best course of action, but his display and subsequent red card tell a different story.
Pickford, on the other hand, has been battered for his displays at Everton in recent weeks, with manager Carlo Ancelotti having to come out and publicly defend his keeper. There have been plenty of calls for Pickford to be dropped as England’s number one, too, and his role last night in the penalty hardly covered him in glory.
Not starting the in-form Jack Grealish and Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Conversely, Southgate overlooked two of the Premier League’s most in-form players in Grealish and Calvert-Lewin. The pairs’ performances at club level have earned them both international call ups, and they impressed on their full debuts against Wales earlier on in this international break.
Grealish was awarded man of the match that evening, and is exactly the type of creative playmaker England lacked against Denmark. Calvert-Lewin meanwhile has been in red-hot form for Everton and currently tops the Premier League goalscoring charts. His predatory movement in the box and aerial threat would’ve been useful tools for Southgate from the outset.
Leaving talented youngsters at home
Two young stars who weren’t even called up to the squad this time around were Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden. Both were sent home in disgrace during the previous international break, but the fact Southgate has continued their punishment into this group of fixtures seems odd.
Greenwood and Foden will no doubt have learnt from their mistake, and by continuing to omit them from the squad Southgate is just generating further negative headlines around his players. Either of them could have added something to proceedings last night, so to not have them at least available from the bench feels like a missed opportunity.
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