It spoke volumes for the slog England and Italy produced on Saturday that, by the end, what did not happen seemed more telling than the little that did. England did not click in attack and did not create many clear chances; when that briefly changed, Raheem Sterling did not adjust in time to convert a cross from Reece James when gloriously positioned in front of goal.
Sterling’s miss jarred particularly in the aftermath, when a frustrated Gareth Southgate put it on the line that his supporting cast need to do more. England are too reliant on Sterling and Harry Kane for goals, he said, which presents an added layer of complication when one or both are misfiring. When the rarity of Kane’s talent was put to him, the theme of absence dominated again. “The concern is if you don’t have him for whatever reason,” Southgate said.
In the event Kane came to harm, England would presumably soldier on with Tammy Abraham – although Southgate hardly glowed about the Roma player’s performance at Molineux – or flirt with a false 9, perhaps Phil Foden. Kane will always provoke the most concern but the prospect of a spluttery Sterling scratched at a sore that has been developing elsewhere in England’s attack.
Southgate finds himself lighter on in-form alternatives out wide than he might have expected a year ago. Where England’s attacking options were being feted as the most bountiful in the world, the number from whom he can reliably coax a tune has dwindled. Even though Sterling’s place in the starting XI at the World Cup is virtually assured, notwithstanding some uncertainty over his status at Manchester City, most of those who could line up on the opposite flank, or even dislodge him, come with caveats and compromises.
It raised an eyebrow to hear Southgate assert, without explicitly naming names, that Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho have “got a lot to do to get back in the squad”. Only 11 months have passed since both players participated in the Euro 2020 final; Rashford is by some distance the third-highest scorer among England’s probables and possibles while memories should stretch sufficiently to visualise Sancho, not called up since October, dovetailing beautifully with Kane and Sterling during some of the qualifiers for that competition.
Both struggled during an awful Manchester United season; Sancho’s uptick in form towards the end of the campaign may give him greater hope of a recall but it is asking a lot for either to garner the momentum between August and October that may restore their international manager’s confidence.
Of the others who may hold aspirations of dislodging this month’s crop, Emile Smith Rowe cannot be discounted but needs to ally a repeat of his early-season form with a robustness that is not yet evident. Harvey Barnes has not kicked on since his debut in 2020 and Jesse Lingard’s time has almost certainly passed. Callum Hudson-Odoi’s next cap looks more likely to be for Ghana. Mason Greenwood is out of the picture.
Suddenly the cupboard does not look as lavishly stocked and it increases the chances that Southgate will ultimately go with the group who have, by his own estimation, lacked sharpness during a slow-burning Nations League mini-series. He needs more from most of them. In recent days he has spoken in pointedly admiring terms of Mason Mount, often unprompted or in response to questions pushing competitors’ claims.
Mount’s versatility and tactical cuteness make him a manager’s dream, even if he is less imposing on the ball than some. Southgate was delighted with his pressing from the No 10 position against Germany, where he felt Mount had nullified Joshua Kimmich, and the Italians; that looks like his eventual home, although he could be deployed in a narrow supporting role in a variant of 3-4-3.
Assuming Southgate opts for a back four when England begin their Qatar 2022 campaign against Iran, that would leave a choice between Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and Jarrod Bowen for the other wide spot. The argument for Foden has possibly been improved by his own absence with Covid-19, given the paucity of England’s offering, although there are still questions around where he fits in.
For his blend of defensive diligence, technical quality and attacking dynamism Saka ticks the most boxes: there is a sense he must impose himself more consistently, though, and it is worth noting three of his four international goals have come against Andorra and San Marino.
Perhaps it is Bowen and Grealish who, set alongside each other, lay Southgate’s conundrum barest. After Bowen performed respectably on his debut in Hungary, Southgate pointed out he had taken more shots than anyone else in the team. Assessing Grealish’s much-anticipated start against Italy, he praised his ball-carrying qualities but observed they had only brought one goal attempt. Bowen has rough edges but is direct, sharp and, even if chances go astray, willing to come back for more. Could a path be opening up all the way into the starting lineup at Khalifa International Stadium?
“I have had chances and been in positions where I am getting chances,” he said of his nascent international career. “It’s just about converting those chances and being really ruthless.” If he goes one better against the Hungarians on Tuesday, his claim may become impossible to ignore.
Bowen and Grealish spoke last week of the freedom Southgate affords them. Grealish could be seen drifting in front of his back four to take possession during Saturday’s second half. That is yet to translate into fluidity and there are underlying factors beyond the wide men’s varying merits: England would be so much slicker, for example, if their attackers could combine with at least one midfielder capable of taking possession on the half-turn and recycling it as quickly as their continental peers. But that situation will not change before November so the forwards must find a way to step up.
“We’ve got to start to spread that load,” Southgate said of their goalscoring burden. That glut of wing talent must quickly become conspicuous by its end product, rather than its holes.