Gareth Southgate has kept England fans guessing as to who will make his Euro 2020 squad and precisely how they will set up in June, but March’s World Cup qualifiers have answered a few questions.
A trio of wins, in England’s last competitive fixtures before their curtain-raiser against Croatia on June 13th, will have given the Three Lions gaffer plenty to consider as he pens-in his final squad, due to be announced in a couple of weeks.
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Here are five things we learnt from March’s fixtures.
4-3-3 suits this team
Since 2018’s run to the World Cup semi-finals - and even until last autumn’s Nations League outings, England’s previous round of fixtures - Southgate has remained wedded to a back three. The formation was a clear sign the England gaffer didn’t fully trust any of his centre-back pairings, and it also allowed him to pack his midfield.
Yet the club form of Harry Maguire and John Stones, in particular, prompted a switch to a 4-3-3 for March’s schedule and England have reaped the benefits. Fewer defenders means more attacking options and this is where England’s strengths now lie. Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Raheem Sterling, Ollie Watkins and Phil Foden were all given opportunities in the front three last month, while the the midfielders and fullbacks appeared more comfortable in this set-up. 4-3-3 has to be how England line-up at the Euros.
Mount makes things tick
“He’s an exceptional player, he finds space, he moves intelligently, he manipulates the ball very well, he creates chances and he scores goals,” Southgate said of Mount following another fine display for England against Albania on Sunday.
Mount had scored a neat goal and generally bossed midfield with little those give-and-gos Chelsea fans have grown to appreciate. In the preceding game, against San Marino, Mount created eight chances from open play in the first 45 minutes; the last player to create more in an international match was Spain’s Xavi, in 2008.
Southgate’s midfield three will likely include a defensive presence, a box-to-box midfielder and a creator. Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice always looked a safe bet for the first two spots, but the third was still up in the air. Mount’s performances in March will have edged him ahead of Jack Grealish and James Maddison in the pecking order.
Set-piece supremacy remains
Despite a buffet of tantalising attacking talent to select from, it’s no disadvantage to see England continuing to shine from dead ball situations. Both goals against Poland came from set pieces, with Kane scoring from the spot before Maguire fired in England’s winner following a corner.
Quality from set pieces was England’s biggest strength at the last World Cup, with nine of their 12 goals coming from set plays. In tournament football, where tight games are often won by a single goal, this is a huge asset. Calvert-Lewin has been added to England’s striking options this summer, meaning England have an even greater aerial threat from set pieces to call upon. It’s another player, though, that could really make a difference.
James Ward-Prowse has scored four free-kicks for Southampton this season and boasts the best conversion rate in the Premier League since David Beckham was still playing for Manchester United. Pep Guardiola has described the Saints skipper as the best corner taker in England’s top flight and the “best freekick taker I have seen in my life”. England could be masters of the skies again if things go to plan.
Defensive errors persist
The blame for Poland’s equaliser on Wednesday night was attributed to John Stones, but in truth it was a collective balls-up. Yes, the Manchester City man got his feet muddled and was caught in possession, but the initial ball from Dean Henderson invited unnecessary pressure, while Harry Maguire should have been in a better position to receive a pass from his foundering teammate.
Either way the latest blunder from Stones was indicative of England’s proclivity for wobbly moments. Southgate hailed his defenders’ character in the aftermath, but he may be tempted to reconsider his strategy. Would that have happened with a back three? Would Kyle Walker on the right of the trio have recovered possession with his pace? Is Pickford still the best man for the no.1 jersey given his superior distribution? These are questions Southgate will ask himself in the coming weeks.
England have Kane alternatives
England captain Harry Kane remains his nation’s best player; a calm leader who can score and create goals. He will lead the attack this summer.
Yet March’s World Cup qualifiers proved England have alternatives should Kane be out of form or fitness at any stage during the Euros. Dominic Calvert-Lewin led the line impressively against an - albeit limited - San Marino, and his workrate and aerial ability could be a powerful weapon against stubborn opposition. Ollie Watkins, meanwhile, offered similar energy and a willingness to make runs in behind the defence. The Villa marksman should pip Danny Ings to the final striker spot in Southgate’s squad. No longer must England be over reliant on one individual.
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