Saka and Bellingham in, Maguire on thin ice: What Gareth Southgate learned from England’s last games before the World Cup
Gareth Southgate was keen to emphasise that England had “learnt a huge amount” from their final Nations League matches – their last action before the World Cup in Qatar later this year.
After a mostly turgid display in Milan last Friday led to a 1-0 defeat against Italy, England restored some confidence with a 3-3 draw with Germany on Monday that felt more like a win.
So, what exactly will Southgate have learned from his final World Cup preparations? Here, City A.M. highlights some of the lessons from England’s last two fixtures.
England have not lost their way
If defeat in Italy heightened concerns that Southgate’s England might be in terminal decline then their comeback from 2-0 down to 3-2 up against Germany kicked them into touch for now.
Staring down the barrel of a third consecutive defeat, they showed a hunger and fight almost entirely absent from this Nations League campaign and looked a fearsome attacking force.
England had shown flashes of this urgency when going behind in Germany in June and against Italy last week, suggesting that their malaise was more psychological than tactical.
While only playing once behind is not sustainable, there was enough in their response to suggest that they may be able to turn it on when required at the World Cup after all.
Saka has to start – in attack
Bukayo Saka might have broken into the Arsenal team as a left wing-back but he has long since made the right wing his favoured role and England’s fightback against Germany showed why.
Used at left wing-back in Italy on Friday, Saka was neither protective enough as a defender nor effective going forward, but introduced off the bench three days later in his usual attacking role he was irresistible.
As he often did at Euro 2020, he carried England up the pitch and bored holes in the opposition defence, setting up Mason Mount’s equaliser and playing a part in the other two goals.
With Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling both lacklustre across the two games, it may not be too late for Saka to force himself into Southgate’s World Cup starting XI.
At left wing-back, meanwhile, Luke Shaw more than justified his recall so the place looks his to lose. On the right, Reece James did little to support his status as preferred option.
Mount poses tactical headache
Having slipped down the England pecking order amid stalling club form, Mount offered a timely reminder of his qualities with an all-action cameo and rasping goal against Germany.
The problem is that Southgate’s apparent intention to use a 3-4-3 formation at the World Cup, as he did against Italy and Germany, makes it harder to accommodate him.
Mount came on as one of the supporting attackers in the front three, where he faces competition for a place from Sterling, Foden and Saka as well as Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho.
He is probably most effective as a No10 but unless Southgate reverts to the 4-2-3-1 he previously favoured, Mount may have to settle for a spot on the bench in Qatar.
Rice and Bellingham pass test
The run to the Euro 2020 final cemented the Declan Rice-Kalvin Phillips axis as the central plank of England’s midfield.
But Phillips’ current absence due to shoulder surgery forced Southgate to find an alternative solution, especially since the Manchester City man may miss the World Cup.
Jude Bellingham always looked the most likely player to come in, and the teenager more than justified his selection with a man-of-the-match display against Germany.
The partnership still needs some work but there was enough evidence from these two games that Rice and Bellingham are developing a good enough partnership to start in Qatar if needed.
No chances for Kane deputy
Harry Kane played every second against Italy and Germany, meaning neither Tammy Abraham nor Ivan Toney was given the chance to press their claims to be his deputy at the World Cup.
If Southgate only plans to name one or the other in his 26-man squad, the logical conclusion to draw is that he has already settled on Abraham.
That last time Kane was left on the bench, at home to Italy in June, it was the Roma striker who started in his place and his greater experience in the England fold would seem to give him the edge.
Maguire on borrowed time
Few players have been as central to Southgate’s England tenure as Harry Maguire, so it should be no great surprise that he has kept faith in him despite recent club struggles.
Maguire excelled at the 2018 World Cup, gave the team renewed momentum at Euro 2020 when he returned to the side and is one of the leaders in the squad.
There is no escaping the fact, however, that he looked shaky against Germany, conceding a penalty for their first goal and losing the ball upfield for their second.
Barring injury, he will surely start England’s World Cup opener against Iran but if his wobbles continue it is no longer inconceivable that Southgate feels compelled to make a change.
Pope hopes up in smoke
Nick Pope got an extended audition between the posts, starting against both Italy and Germany while established first choice Jordan Pickford recovers from injury.
He didn’t do much wrong in Milan but at Wembley he had a night to forget, spilling the ball to Kai Havertz for a late equaliser and looking nervy with the ball at his feet.
Aaron Ramsdale also ended his two-game trial in June on a disappointing note with the 4-0 defeat by Hungary, although he was not obviously at fault.
With Pickford expected to recover for the World Cup, Pope and Ramsdale are likely vying for back-up status but this international break has not done the latter’s hopes any harm.