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What England’s International Break Tells Us Ahead of the Euros

Staff Writer, Oliver Harrison comments on England’s performances in the recent international friendlies, with an insight into what fans may expect at the upcoming Euro 2024 tournament.

The most recent international break saw England play at home against Brazil and Belgium, the number four and five ranked FIFA sides. Amidst a backdrop of dressing room drama, kit controversy and an onslaught of injuries, the final set of friendlies before the summer still offered some insight as to what fans can expect from England’s UEFA EURO 2024 campaign.

Neither game was a fantastic reflection on England’s goalkeeping situation. Despite Jordan Pickford’s near perfect performance in goal under Gareth Southgate, particularly at major tournaments where he has kept nine clean sheets in 19 games, his authority in goal was undermined when a combination of poor positioning and careless distribution allowed a goal from Belgium’s Youri Tielemans.

Aaron Ramsdale failed to earn any minutes on the pitch, which may develop into a failure to make the squad if he continues not to play for Arsenal. Burnley’s James Trafford suffered the same fate on his first senior call-up, but his presence in the squad may indicate a place on the plane in the summer, especially given Nick Pope’s injury-disrupted season for Newcastle and Sam Johnstone’s shoulder issue that is set to keep him out beyond the Euros.

Southgate’s trusted first-choice centre-back pairing, Harry Maguire and John Stones, started against Brazil. Maguire likely would have started against Belgium if not for an injury in the previous game; it looks like Southgate may maintain his status quo at the Euros, despite Maguire losing the captaincy at Manchester United and falling into a squad role. However, Maguire did not reward Southgate’s loyalty against Brazil, being consistently outpaced and making an error that led to a dangerous Raphinha shot.

John Stones, on the other hand, was far more assured. The last year has seen the best form of his career, as Pep Guardiola has given him a hybrid role for Manchester City in which he pushes forward in possession to partner a conventional defensive midfielder, sometimes even roaming into the final third. Although Southgate is unlikely to introduce such tactical innovation to England, the Brazil game was evidence enough that Stones can still play as a conventional centre-half with the occasional teasing drive forwards.

Stones’ tenth minute injury against Belgium gave Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa the chance to play at centre-back rather than right-back, where he came on against Brazil. He was generally defensively sound in both games and kept himself in contention, although he failed to mark Tielemans for Belgiums’ second goal. The bigger fault for this goal, however, came from Lewis Dunk, who unnecessarily threw himself to the floor to claim the ball in a moment of ill judgement which humiliatingly led directly to a goal. Dunk lost possession six times in that same game. A sensible alternative may be Jarrad Branthwaite, who earned his first senior call-up. Like Trafford though, whom he won the Under-21 EURO title with last July, Brainthwaite did not play a single minute.

The fullback area was predictably poor, with the strongest options ruled out through injury. By the twentieth minute against Brazil, left-back Ben Chilwell was failing to keep shape, making central runs that culminated in two wasteful shots off target. On the opposite flank, acting captain Kyle Walker looked his usual self, both mature in defence and progressive in attack, but a twentieth minute injury forced an early exit from the camp. His substitution exposed a slowness in England’s back line, as evidenced by Endrick’s goal which came from a ball over the top of England’s defence.

This could be remedied by Liverpool’s Joe Gomez, who impressed upon his return to the squad for the first time since 2020, completing three accurate crosses against Belgium including one clever chipped ball that should have been converted. His pace and versatility – he has played across a back four as well as in defensive midfield for Liverpool – could make him essential for a 23-man squad.

Against Brazil, the starting midfield trio suggested that England will aim to strike a balance between industry and technical quality. In defensive midfield, Arsenal’s Declan Rice earned his 50th cap for England against Belgium, where he captained England for the first time. Unless injured, he will start for England at the Euros alongside Bellingham, who has excelled for Madrid this season in attacking midfield. Despite his ability to play in any midfield position, Southgate also evidently wants to take advantage of his attacking capabilities. The 20-year-old played the most key passes from England’s front six against Brazil. While he made only one against Belgium, it met Toney perfectly to earn a penalty, and he went on to score the equaliser. Playing such a tenacious midfielder high up the pitch also has advantages for England’s press: against Brazil, Bellingham joined Watkins out of possession in a front two, where he completed two tackles and won twelve duels. In possession, his ability to ride tackles was almost unparalleled by his teammates, earning nine fouls across both games.

Bellingham’s ball retention was, however, matched by Manchester United youngster Kobbie Mainoo, replacing Gallagher (who brought his immense work-rate to the third midfield slot against Brazil without much benefit) and immediately introducing a sense of composure with a mischievous drag back to maintain possession. In his full debut, he disrupted play, got involved with build-up, and played Gallagher’s balanced role – operating in defensive and attacking areas – with a greater sense of quality and assurance. If Mainoo continues his excellent form, he may start over Gallagher, whose energy is vital for the squad but not suitable for every game.

England struggled in the absence of striker Harry Kane, who was replaced by Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins against Brazil. Despite his 26 Premier League goal contributions this season, Watkins’ performance was subpar, producing only one shot (off target) in 90 minutes. The back-up striker position is now more likely to be filled by Brentford’s Ivan Toney, who looked far more threatening when he started against Belgium, scoring a penalty as a result of his intelligent penetrative runs on defenders’ blindside. He also contributed far more, creating a big chance and winning four duels (two more than Watkins).

Anthony Gordon played well on the left-wing upon his first senior call-up, overloading the flank with Bellingham and Chilwell. It was a good debut but not spectacular enough to displace other attacking options: he may make it to Germany but is unlikely to start. A similar conclusion may be drawn of Jarrod Bowen, who started on the right against Belgium. Bakayo Saka is almost certain to start over him, but Bowen’s speed, penetration and ability to play as striker could provide useful options from the bench. 

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion involves Phil Foden’s role. The Manchester City starlet started on the right-wing against Brazil and and on the left against Belgium, but many fans want to see him in midfield, where he has played for his club this season. His most effective performance was in the second game. Bellingham’s tendency to drift left on occasion allowed Foden to float into midfield, interchanging with him and even dropping so deep that he was in the centre circle at points, where he demonstrated his immense passing range.

Given England’s injury situation, this international break is not a reliable indication of the side’s trajectory in the summer: by the eleventh minute of the second game, six positions were filled by players highly unlikely to start. However, it does suggest that England’s depth may not be as strong as imagined, with players such as Watkins, Dunk and Chilwell arguably playing themselves out of contention.

Injuries are not to blame for everything though. Generally, England overplayed on the edge of the box, lacked pace in their passing, and were reluctant to act on the first touch. In regards to the team’s composition, without Rashford (who is in form too poor to start) and Walker (who was injured), England have a glaring lack of pace in both attack and defence: this led to the concession of seven big chances against Brazil, more than England conceded at the entirety of EURO 2020 (6) or the 2022 World Cup (5). Foden’s transgressive role against Belgium and the introduction of Mainoo have further complicated the midfield situation which, if resolved correctly, could be the key to England’s first trophy in 58 years.

Whatever Southgate decides, there are certainly worse headaches to have.

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