‘Baffling and concerning’ – what is wrong with England?

Gareth Southgate’s England have been here before – for the third successive major tournament they have drawn their second group game.

Just like the performances in the goalless draws with Scotland at Euro 2020 and the USA at the 2022 World Cup, this 1-1 stalemate with Denmark has left Southgate with as many questions as answers despite being unbeaten and on the brink of reaching the next round.

Theories abound as to what the England boss can do to improve his team as Euro 2024 progresses. While reaching the knockout stages is within touching distance, optimism is evaporating.

“I don’t know if they are being told to play like this,” former England defender Micah Richards said on BBC One. “They are lethargic – they need more energy and need to be more aggressive.

“We are constantly inviting pressure. We have a group of players who can keep the ball.”

Why are England so ‘passive’?

Many pundits and fans have questioned why an England side so packed with talent, who play for clubs such as Manchester City and Liverpool that press with style and abandon, were sitting in a low block.

Having, as they did against Serbia, started with purpose and scored a deserved opener, England notably withdrew from the midfield fight and ceded impetus to their opponents.

It was that lack of pressing which gave Morten Hjulmand the space and time to pick his spot and arrow a magnificent equaliser past Jordan Pickford and in off the post.

“England have to have more intensity in the press – they are too passive at the moment,” said former England defender Rio Ferdinand.

“They have got in some good positions high up the pitch but have lacked that intensity, and when you are passive you are played through.

“The current balance of the team is not allowing the players to reach the levels that they have done for clubs. Phil Foden is out of position and not playing his best, maybe Jude Bellingham would be better playing at number eight. It is a big concern.

“At the moment England do not know when to squeeze the pitch, who is going when, the distances between each other. Once you have questions tactically the picture can change in a split second in front of you and you are lost.

“It is baffling and concerning.”

First-half touch map

What do you do with midfield? Could Alexander-Arnold play left-back?

It seems to be baffling Southgate, who said after the game that this was not part of the plan.

“No,” he said, when asked whether he tells the team to drop deep after scoring.

“I think we’ve played teams that are quite fluid in back threes and it’s not easy to get pressure on them, but we’ve got to do that better than we have in these last two matches. Not keeping the ball has been another problem.”

When it comes to England keeping the ball, Southgate’s selection will be questioned.

Trent Alexander-Arnold struggled to impact play against Serbia, and was utterly swamped here.

Absent were the quarterback passes Southgate would have hoped for – instead he was overwhelmed and eventually withdrawn after 54 minutes for Conor Gallagher.

If the Trent project has failed, Southgate must assess options – Gallagher to start against Slovenia? Bellingham to drop deep? Time to trust Kobbie Mainoo or Adam Wharton?

Southgate faces having to experiment in a live tournament – a boom or bust scenario.

“Alexander-Arnold has come into the midfield to add a creative element. I think Southgate expected to be more dominant in possession where Trent would be found in more offensive situations where he could utilise his right foot,” former England defender Izzy Christiansen told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“What I would say as a consideration is playing someone else alongside Declan Rice such as Mainoo, or dropping Bellingham deeper.

“Could you put Trent at left-back because Kieran Trippier hasn’t been outstanding?”

On the balance of England’s midfield, Ferdinand added: “I would put Declan Rice in the six, Jude Bellingham in the eight running from deep and Phil Foden in the free role as the 10. I think that is how you will get the best of these players.”

‘Kane for England is like Ronaldo for Portugal’

But perhaps the biggest elephant in the room was Harry Kane. England’s talisman for so long, it cannot be avoided that they looked sharper when Watkins replaced the captain with 20 minutes to play.

Kane’s scoring record for England is remarkable – his goal against Denmark, a typically opportunistic finish, makes him only the third man to score at four different major tournaments for the Three Lions after Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney.

But as he did against Serbia, against whom he had just two touches of the ball in the first half, he cut a peripheral figure for long spells on Thursday.

It drew comparisons with another international talisman, and not in a positive way.

“Harry Kane is always there and the ball always falls to him in the box, it is like a magnet,” said Ferdinand.

“That is the problem for Gareth Southgate. Portugal probably have it with Cristiano Ronaldo as well – you can’t have it all from a striker, he won’t offer that intense press.”

Ex-England striker Gary Lineker said Kane “needs his manager to come and ask a little more of him” after his showing against Denmark – and that he himself “would have expected that if I’d put in that kind of performance”.

“As a striker you have two jobs: score goals, which Harry Kane has been good at all his career, and make space,” said Lineker.

“Against a back three he has to stretch the play, run one way and then come short so you don’t have to come too far to receive it.

“He needs to make more space for the midfield players behind him to create chances.”

Fellow former Three Lions forward Shearer agreed the key was getting players from midfield to run beyond the striker.

“As I got older I needed pace in and around me. I could still score goals, head the ball, get into positions in the box, but one thing I could not do is run in behind. Harry Kane is the same now,” Shearer said.

“He needs players that have the legs to run beyond and make the space. That’s why I would have [Anthony] Gordon in the team. Foden is occupying the same spaces as Kane at the moment and it’s not working.”

There was some surprise from the England camp at the criticism following the Serbia game. There was much more acceptance this time, even if it is not a game-over scenario.

The last time England drew their second group game at the Euros, they went on to reach the final. But to ensure a repeat, Southgate has many questions to answer.

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