Gareth Southgate’s England taking shape? Questions for the manager

Early goals from Declan Rice and Mason Mount set England on their way to a 4-0 victory over Iceland at Wembley as they ended their Nations League campaign on a positive note. Phil Foden's first two England goals capped a convincing victory for the home side.

Birkir Mar Saevarsson's second-half red card had already ended any hopes of an Iceland comeback but the discussions surrounding this England team are just getting started.

With Gareth Southgate seemingly sticking with the 3-4-3 formation, plenty of questions remain ahead of next summer's European Championships. Here are just a few…

Is this the formation for the Euros?

When Southgate first returned to the back three that worked so well for England at the World Cup, it was seen as evidence of some flexibility, a willingness to try new formations. But given that his team have now lined up in this 3-4-3 system for each of the last seven matches it seems unlikely that this is mere variation. This is England's shape for the Euros.

That is a bold call given that England had the best goals-per-game record in qualifying for the competition while operating with a back four. But losing the most difficult group game - away to Czech Republic - may have crystallised Southgate's view that something else would be needed in tournament play where stronger opposition lies in wait.

These consecutive three-game international meet-ups, bringing six matches in as many weeks, have been fraught with logistical difficulties, but they have allowed Southgate to fast-track understanding of the new system. The hope is that the benefit of this time together will be realised come the summer. It might be too late to change course now.

Does it make best use of the talent?

The fear is that this system is more about masking vulnerabilities than making the most of the talent at the top end of the pitch. England do not have two world-class centre-backs but that seems to be why Southgate feels the need to play three. Playing two holding midfielders against stronger sides leaves England with only three attack-minded players.

"We keep talking about the system but it is not so much the system as getting those four attacking players in," Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports. "Belgium play this system too but they play Youri Tielemans and if Eden Hazard is fit then Kevin De Bruyne goes back into midfield. So even though is it similar, they play that fourth attacking player.

"With Mason Mount in midfield, we have got the four attacking players on the pitch and that is the big thing for me rather than the system. We have got a lot of technical players."

Given that Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are likely starters, that leaves only one vacancy in the forward line. One vacancy to be filled by Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood, Phil Foden or someone else. That is some serious talent to be omitting from the starting line-up when there are deficiencies elsewhere in the team.

Is the blend in midfield the key now?

Southgate's inclusion of Mount in that midfield role for the second time in three games suggests that the England manager recognises the issue. Perming any two from Rice, Jordan Henderson, Harry Winks and Kalvin Phillips just does not provide the requisite attacking thrust from midfield in support of the three forwards ahead of them.

"Another chance to see Mason a little deeper," Southgate told Sky Sports when he was asked before the kick-off against Iceland what details he would be keeping an eye out for within his team. "We are looking for him to break higher up the pitch," he explained.

That is exactly what Mount did, often moving beyond Grealish and finding himself inside the penalty box. He was there to pick up the loose ball and score to double England's lead in the early stages at Wembley. He has the knack of scoring and it is a useful knack to have.

If there is a concern it is that Southgate does not see an alternative within the squad. Asked whether Foden might drop into midfield, he pointed out that the Manchester City player does not operate there for his club. He has said much the same about Grealish in the past.

England will need more options than Mount in that more attacking midfield role and they will need Southgate to have the courage to play them against stronger sides than Iceland.

What about the balance in attack?

The quality of the opposition on Wednesday evening makes drawing conclusions difficult and Southgate will know that. Foden, brilliant against Iceland, and Grealish, impressive once more, are two players with the technical ability to pick holes in even the deepest defences.

When England are up against better teams in the latter stages of tournaments - which is where Southgate aspires to take this team - will that be the problem that needs solving?

It seems more likely that England will need lightning pace on the counter-attack when they are unable to dominate possession and this brings the qualities of players such as Rashford to the fore instead. Finding the balance between players who want the ball to feet and those who are at their best running onto it will be just as important as the midfield blend.

Is there time for others to break in?

Southgate's decision to call-up Jude Bellingham from the England Under-21 squad when injuries forced him to add to the numbers for this November get-together was ominous news for those more experienced players who are still hoping to earn a call in the summer.

Ross Barkley's impressive form for Aston Villa means he was a little unfortunate to be omitted in the first place. Could he be the midfielder to rival Mount and Bellingham? Greenwood, meanwhile, will hope that he is able to regain momentum for club and country.

Is there room for more than one out of Danny Ings, Tammy Abraham and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the squad let alone in-form strikers such as Patrick Bamford and Ollie Watkins?

The problem is that England have so many options that even a player of Grealish's undoubted ability has been made to wait. Southgate spoke of the need for the Villa captain to spend time on the training ground learning the nuances of the new system. That does not bode well for those currently on the outside looking in.

There are many questions but, as is so often the case in international football, the challenge for the manager is to find the answers within the existing group.

Source: Sky Sports / Adam Bate


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