Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish made the difference for England against Germany
Amid the euphoria and delirium that followed England’s victory over Germany on Tuesday, Gareth Southgate embraced a new role. Not that of the redeemed hero or the managerial mastermind, as many England supporters were now labelling him, but as a self-described “party pooper”.
Rather than throwing himself into the celebrations with his players, Southgate instead chose to pour some cold reality over their heads. “If we don’t capitalise on that on Saturday now, then it does not count for anything,” he told his team.
It was a little reminder, first to the players and then the country, that there is still plenty of work to be done. Not just in terms of the remaining matches, but also in terms of England’s level of performance. Yes, his team were mightily impressive. But no, they were not without flaws.
There are still areas in need of rapid improvement, and the most pressing of those must surely be the on-pitch relationship between Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. In scoring England’s goals, Kane and Sterling underlined their status as two of Southgate’s undroppables. There is no doubt, though, that they could be combining much more effectively as an attacking duo.
Kane and Sterling’s respective skill sets should make them the ideal pairing, and yet so far in this tournament they have largely been unable to dovetail in the final third. In 313 minutes of action, they have played just 16 passes to each other. For context, 37 different pairs of players have played more passes to each other for England at this tournament.
Kane and Sterling: 16 passes in 313 minutes
It is clear that a large part of the problem has been Kane’s individual struggles. He has either dropped too deep into midfield, or he has been too isolated in attack. Instead of feeding Sterling in the way he supplied Son Heung-min at Tottenham Hotspur last season, Kane has often been a peripheral figure.
The hope is that Kane’s goal will relieve him of the pressure he has clearly felt as England’s talisman and captain. On this front, there is encouragement to be found in history: Alan Shearer exploded into life for the national team after his first European Championship goal 25 years ago.
“I played with Alan in ‘96 and the change in him once he got that goal,” said Southgate. “I remember when he played in China [in a pre-tournament friendly] and it was another game without a goal and you could sense how it was for him so that will be a high release for him [Kane], there is no question about that.
“The life of a centre forward is a lot of pressure. Not only is there the public expectation but there is an inherent desire and drive that centre forwards have that if you win the game they don’t score, they are irritated. That is the mindset of the top players. So it will have been a perfect day for Harry.”
If Kane and Sterling can click, Southgate’s side will be even more formidable. Indeed it was from one of their rare link-ups — Sterling finding Kane after a charge infield — that England scored their opening goal against Germany.
Against a Ukraine side which is expected to defend deep, and with numbers, the key for England will be finding a way to make Kane and Sterling combine more regularly. The solution could be Jack Grealish, who showed at Wembley that he can be the man to bridge the gap between England’s two most dangerous attackers.
Jack Grealish provides the cross for Harry Kane to score
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
With his willingness to take the ball under pressure, and his ability to find small pockets of space in the final third, Grealish has been able to knit together England’s attacking moves. In contrast to Kane and Sterling’s inability to find each other, Grealish has played 13 passes to Kane and Sterling in just 99 minutes of action, creating more options and better passing angles.
Grealish to Kane and Sterling: 13 passes in 99 minutes
For Grealish to come in, Southgate might need to revert to a back four. Grealish could operate as the central attacking midfielder, or he could replace Bukayo Saka as a wide player. He would play that role in an entirely different way to Saka, but his inclusion could bring a new dimension to England’s attack and, possibly, unlock the full potential of Kane and Sterling.
England's starting line-ups so far at the Euros