‘A brutal and timely reminder of England’s problems’

England manager Gareth Southgate

England manager Gareth Southgate received a brutal and timely reminder of the concerns that still follow his side around as the countdown ticks towards Euro 2024 in Germany this summer.

The loss to Brazil in a Wembley friendly is hardly an earthshaker in the grand scheme of things – and all analysis must be shaped within the context of this being a revamped England team without injured talisman and captain Harry Kane along with Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka.

In other words, it was not a night for definitive judgements.

It was, however, still a very painful, disappointing occasion as England suffered their first loss since the World Cup quarter-final against France in Qatar in December 2022, as well as a first reverse at the stadium in 21 games going back to the Uefa Nations League defeat by Denmark in October 2020.

And old, familiar problems still exist, even though Southgate was putting a surprisingly glass half-full gloss on a performance that could have brought a more emphatic defeat than the one inflicted by substitute Endrick’s late goal; he is the youngest to score at Wembley at the age of 17 years and 246 days.

England had occasional moments – Ollie Watkins’ first-half miss being their biggest chance – but two glaring flaws stand out in what should be a display of some concern for Southgate.

Yes, it was a friendly and England’s side had a somewhat experimental nature as Newcastle United’s Anthony Gordon was given his debut, with Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa and Manchester United’s 18-year-old prodigy Kobbie Mainoo also winning their first caps as substitutes.

The problems were not there. They were in areas that have been England’s downfall before – and could be again if they are repeated in Germany in the summer.

Brazil have lost their last three games and the current generation under coach Dorival Junior have been derided as shadows of their golden past but they still looked a lot more incisive and controlled than England, deserving their victory.

England’s defence, especially in the centre, has long been an Achilles heel against opposition of the highest class and it was exposed once more here by the pace and skill of Brazil.

Once again, we must flag up mitigating circumstances, with captain on the night Kyle Walker an early (and worrying for Manchester City) casualty with a hamstring injury sustained while racing back to clear off the line from Vinicius Junior.

It is the left side of England’s defence where the worries linger, especially in the uncertain performance Harry Maguire, who was guilty of too many mistakes – as were Ben Chilwell and Lewis Dunk – when he came on as substitute.

Maguire stands by his record at major tournaments and is right to do so, but it is also a fact to state that he was very fortunate to escape unpunished when a poor backpass played in Raphinha, who generously spared England’s experienced defender by shooting wide.

England, should all go well, are slated to meet France in the Euro 2024 semi-final and, as we have seen before, these mistakes do not always go unpunished when they reach the sharp end of major tournaments. Keep making them and it will happen again, especially with someone like Kylian Mbappe in the vicinity.

Southgate acknowledged this when he said: “The difference in the game was one moment. That is the ruthlessness of football at this level.”

England know this only too well from past, bitter experience at major tournaments.

Southgate will keep faith with Maguire but the Manchester United defender is fortunate no-one has yet come through the pack to make a compelling case to replace him.

Kane’s absence was keenly felt, England looking blunt without their world-class striker and Arsenal’s Saka, as Brazil stayed deep. The captain will return to Bayern Munich and will take no part in Tuesday’s friendly against Belgium at Wembley after failing to recover from an ankle injury.

The idea of anything untoward befalling Kane is unthinkable because, for all Watkins’ energy and what Ivan Toney may yet bring against Belgium, England’s on-field leader is irreplaceable.

Talking of painful nights, it was certainly one for Jude Bellingham, who saw his progress towards superstar status rewarded by being ruthlessly kicked to various parts of Wembley by Brazil, although he also received a yellow card himself for a late challenge on Bruno Guimaraes.

The price of fame was certainly a sore one for Bellingham here.

Southgate’s deeds as manager have rightly raised expectations sky high for the Euros this summer after reaching a World Cup semi-final in 2018, the Euro 2020 final and the World Cup quarter-final in 2022.

They all ended in defeat – by Croatia, Italy at Wembley and France, respectively. The final frontier is the toughest to cross but England have a huge opportunity in Germany.

The loss to Brazil is a bump in the road, hardly a seismic shock to the system but it was certainly a graphic illustration of where England’s high ambitions could yet again fall down.

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