Gareth Southgate faces some big decisions after England's lacklustre performance against Scotland
England manager Gareth Southgate said it himself. With an hour gone and the game goalless against Scotland, the third-lowest ranked team at the European Championship, the priority became not to lose rather than gambling for the victory.
“In the end, not enough to win but when you can’t win it’s critical not to lose,” said Southgate, who added: “It’s easy to gamble towards the end, lose the game and you’re kicking yourself for not managing the tournament.”
It was the sort of pragmatism that could yet serve England well in the Euros, with Portugal and Greece both successful examples of the cautious approach. But it is his safety-first decisions that have put Southgate and his players under pressure as they prepare for the third and final group game against Czech Republic on Tuesday night.
If England ultimately fail to meet expectations in this tournament, Southgate will be defined by five key decisions that have so far marked him out as a cautious coach.
1. The 27th man
Barring a stunning injury crisis, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Ben White will have the opportunity to make an impact for England at the Euros. That is not the fault of the Brighton star, who did well in the two warm-up games, but did England really need another central defender?
White was not part of the 23-man squad for the Scotland game and with John Stones and Tyrone Mings keeping two clean sheets, and Harry Maguire fit again, it could be that he sits out more games. James Ward-Prowse could have been on the bench against Scotland to try to open them up with a set-piece, with Jack Grealish sent on to win free-kicks.
Or Ollie Watkins could have been another striker available to Southgate to try to pinch a goal. White was presumably selected in case Maguire suffered a set-back, which raises another question over Southgate’s decision-making…
2. Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson
Southgate essentially used the three extra places in his squad to select two players who are not fit, or certainly not match-fit. And the draw with Scotland has given him a problem. Presumably bargaining on the fact that a victory and qualification would allow him the freedom to start with both Maguire and Jordan Henderson against Czech Republic, Southgate now has a big decision to make.
Needing a victory and a good performance if not necessarily for qualification but for momentum and confidence, can Southgate start with two players who have been out for such a long time on Tuesday night? Equally, can Southgate afford to risk having to hand Maguire or Henderson, or both of them, their first starts in a knockout game when the opposition will be tougher and the stakes will be higher?
It is a difficult decision purely of Southgate’s making, having opted against the big call of leaving both or one of his senior players out of his final squad entirely.
Here come the Germans
Game management was one of the few areas that Southgate faced questions over at the World Cup in 2018 and doubts remain over his ability to alter a result with his substitutions. Wembley roared its approval when Jack Grealish was sent on against Scotland with just under half-an-hour remaining, but there were groans over who was going off.
Southgate could have sacrificed Kalvin Phillips and pushed Mason Mount further back to accommodate Grealish, while keeping other attacking players on the pitch and yet it was a like-for-like change with Phil Foden. Similarly, when Marcus Rashford was thrown on, it was in place of Harry Kane, rather than to play alongside him, and Jadon Sancho remained on the bench, having not been part of the 23-man squad for the Croatia game.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin also remained on the bench against Scotland, with Southgate only using two of his five permitted changes. Whether or not Southgate will ever be brave enough to go for broke remains to be seen, but there has been little evidence of a willingness to take a risk up to now.
4. Jack Grealish
Southgate said himself that England have got to be realistic about the expectations placed on Grealish after he was accused by some of failing to turn the game after being thrown on against Scotland, but the England manager has created a situation that has put huge pressure on himself and the Aston Villa captain.
Remember, Southgate was initially reluctant to even call Grealish into his squad and, since doing so, he has been equally reluctant to trust him in a tournament game. That has resulted in an unofficial public campaign forming behind Grealish, with supporters now demanding his inclusion no matter what and then expecting the 25-year-old to produce an instant moment of magic.
It is an unhealthy situation for both the manager and the player, and it would seem the only way to ease some of that pressure would be to start Grealish on Tuesday night and hope he can give the fans what they so desperately want.
6. Harry Kane
Southgate has backed his captain by saying Harry Kane will start against Czech Republic, but what happens if he fails to score and hit top form again? The statistics tell us that England’s manager should have been preparing for the fact that his number one striker may not hit the ground running in these Euros.
He finished the season as the Premier League’s golden boot winner and those who criticise Kane usually end up with egg on their faces. But that does not mean that Southgate should simply hope for the best, given Kane did not score for his country at all in 2020 and now has just two goals in his last 11 appearances for his country – one of which was a penalty and the other coming against Albania.
It has been some time since we have seen the best of Kane in an England shirt, but Southgate appears unprepared for the possibility that we may have to find a way of reigniting his international form or winning without him. Favouring extra defenders and two unfit players, Southgate only opted for one out-and-out alternative to Kane in Calvert-Lewin, while Watkins and Dany Ings were ultimately left at home. It may well be a case of Kane or bust for Southgate and England.