It has not been a good week for England. Their performance in beating Austria on Wednesday was sketchy at best. Injury news remains anything but encouraging.
So if ever there was time for a reality check before a big tournament, this probably is it.
Gareth Southgate’s England will certainly look different than we ever imagined when his team lined up against Croatia on June 13 for the first game of the European Championship at Wembley.
Gareth Southgate has plenty to think about after a somewhat troubling week for his England side
Harry Maguire is not playing against Croatia and faces a race to play in the group stage at all
Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire do not play against Croatia. That is now an accepted truth. Can we expect both players in the group stage? Both face a solid challenge in doing so, although Henderson could play in the exhibition game on Sunday to get fit.
The Liverpool skipper felt some discomfort in his groin at the start of the week and has not played a minute since February 20. It would be a step down the road if he got some playing time against Romania, but no more than that.
Maguire has only just started running after injuring his ankle at Manchester United.
England is undoubtedly weakened. Henderson and Maguire are part of the backbone of Southgate’s first-choice squad, with 90 caps between them.
England are certainly weakened by the absence of Maguire and Jordan Henderson on the team
Not only will their absence make England’s central areas look a bit green in terms of international experience, it will also – in Southgate’s mind at least – raise questions about his team’s fundamentals.
Without a doubt, the England national team coach will now consider a move to three in the back. He’s been there before. Such a move would give him extra reliability for goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, but would also lead to the sacrifice of one of his attacking players further down the field.
So it’s a mystery. On the one hand, the strength of this England team, for the first time in many years, is their creativity and their ability to play instinctively.
It would be a shame to take any of that away at this late stage. Likewise, a team that cannot be trusted defensively will never win anything.
What is certain is that margins for Southgate’s team over the next month – if England last that long – will be very good.
Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish both performed impressively against Austria’s physicality
Jordan Pickford was lucky he wasn’t punished for a major loss of concentration against Austria
This England team, promising as they are, is not good enough to turn around three or four goals from the right side, so Southgate must find a way to maximize what he has and that will come down, at least in part, to attitude, organization and discipline.
Much of that was missing in Middlesbrough on Wednesday night. It was impressive to watch Jack Grealish and the young Bukayo Saka – the best players of the evening – take such a beating from an unabashedly physical Austrian team without falling into the trap of retaliation. As Grealish himself said afterwards, the value of set pieces in the last third of the field should never be underestimated.
Elsewhere, there were less encouraging signs. Tyrone Mings’ decision to check an opponent off the ball early in the game should terrify Southgate. That’s a red card from VAR in the tournament.
And what about Pickford? The Everton goalkeeper, who was praised by his international manager for his heightened focus and concentration in the second half of the national season, could have injured himself and Ben Godfrey with his ridiculous jump over the top of his teammate in the last minute of the game. Wednesday’s match. Austria should have equalized as the ball cleared Pickford’s weak shot. Ben White cleared the ensuing shot from the goal line.
England take on Romania on Sunday in their final warm-up match before the start of the European Championship
Lessons to learn, then, for Sunday’s final warm-up against Romania. Southgate thinks so.
“We’re talking about giving away free kicks because you know that when you go into tournaments, teams are dangerous from set plays,” Southgate said. “You have to compete, but you have to make sure you don’t give away mistakes. And we have to make sure we keep eleven men on the field.’
Southgate have returning Manchester United players Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford at their disposal against Romania, but we can’t expect Chelsea or Manchester City’s quota on the pitch until the opening afternoon of the English tournament. They joined the roster on Friday after their participation in last weekend’s Champions League final.
The England manager will have been encouraged by how well the left wing of Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount played for Chelsea in Porto.
From City, Phil Foden and Kyle Walker have also been in good recent form, despite the disappointment of that night.
Southgate has no Phil Foden and Mason Mount available this weekend weekend
Right-back Walker can look forward to another interesting tournament. He spoke about his dislike for a central defender after the last World Cup, but don’t be surprised to see him to the right of three at some point over the next two weeks.
There is no need to be depressed about England’s chances. Mount, Grealish, Foden and the young Jude Bellingham have a talent to burn and confidence to match. Bellingham was impressive in patches against Austria.
But this is undoubtedly an English squad that looks different and from then on a lot will be demanded of the national coach. He has sometimes been criticized for being too careful. It’ll be intriguing to see if he succumbs to those instincts now, and Sunday night at the Riverside may hold a few clues.
As for his players, they really need to show the street arts that were occasionally lacking earlier this week.
England have a poor record against Romania and have not won their last seven games with them hen