In football, as in life, timing is everything. It is certainly no fault of Gareth Southgate’s that his England side must now take centre stage with last weekend’s riotously entertaining Premier League still fresh in the memory. Hurrah for international triple-header week, said no one ever; and yet the stakes for these three fixtures at a deserted Wembley – a friendly against Wales on Thursday, followed by Nations League games against Belgium on Sunday and Denmark on Wednesday – are considerable. Not simply for this emerging, amorphous England team, but for Southgate himself.
Outside major tournaments, the lot of the international manager is one of basic helplessness in the face of events. The player you fall in love with one game could get catastrophically injured before the next. The red-hot striker who was banging them in before Christmas might be enfeebled and exhausted by March. So little of your success is actually within your control, and yet even by those standards Southgate’s last 12 months have been a chastening lesson in just how quickly the mood music can shift.
It’s easily forgotten that at the turn of the year, England were one of Europe’s form teams. They had their issues, but breaking teams down was not one of them: 27 goals in six games last autumn. One pandemic and two painfully inadequate performances against Iceland (1-0) and Denmark (0-0) later, and suddenly the landscape feels a little colder, on the pitch and off.
Over the weekend came the news that Jadon Sancho, Ben Chilwell and Tammy Abraham had breached Covid-19 rules by attending Abraham’s birthday party. Following the nocturnal escapades of Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden in Iceland, and Harry Maguire’s brush with the Greek legal system, here was another unwelcome bump in the road. And so the talk this week has been all about “responsibilities”, “reminders”, everyone being on the same page. “We will discuss the shirt,” Southgate announced ahead of this week. “What it means to wear the shirt.” Right. OK. So we’re back here again.
In a way, discipline is the least of Southgate’s dilemmas at this point. With only a handful of fixtures left to finalise his plans for next summer’s European Championship, rarely has this side felt so unsettled, so unbalanced, so unresolved. Players who felt like the future have been consigned to the past: John Stones hasn’t been called up in a year, Dele Alli almost 18 months, Ruben Loftus-Cheek two years. Meanwhile, a fresh flurry of the uncapped and barely-capped has stepped into the breach: Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Harvey Barnes, Bukayo Saka, Reece James, Conor Coady, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Kalvin Phillips, Jack Grealish.
In total, almost half of Southgate’s enormous squad – 14 out of 30 – have four caps or fewer. Are they good enough? Will we even be able to tell? Is it remotely possible to integrate this many players in so short a time? How much will Southgate learn about them? In short: what are all these undoubtedly fine footballers actually doing here?
In part this stems from Southgate’s preference for what he can see and feel with his own eyes over what he can glimpse from afar. With the pandemic severely curtailing his ability to attend matches – he has been at only a handful of games since lockdown – Southgate has taken the opportunity to see as many new players as possible in the flesh.
The Wales friendly – with Abraham, Chilwell and Sancho all missing after their transgression – feels particularly ripe for experimentation. Calvert-Lewin has thoroughly earned his chance given his superb start to the season at Everton; so too Grealish and Barnes. Saka may end up filling the problem left-back position, and Burnley’s Nick Pope will probably be given a chance in goal ahead of the ailing Jordan Pickford, even after his own calamitous mistake against Newcastle at the weekend.
But it is Belgium and Denmark, both must-win games if England harbour ambitions of reaching next year’s Nations League finals, who will most sternly test Southgate’s resolve. Belgium, the world’s No 1 team, will be England’s strongest opposition in two years: well-stocked in every department, lethal from set pieces and on a run of 12 straight wins.
Denmark could easily have beaten England in Copenhagen last month. Both will relish taking on a midfield that increasingly resembles a howling void: a swirling black hole of ideas and creativity that the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen will stretch to its limit.
And the wider issue, really, is one of form against loyalty, continuity against experimentation, consistency against adaptability. Southgate likes Pickford. He likes Maguire. He likes Joe Gomez. He likes Harry Winks. But do any of them command a place on current form? He likes his front three of Sancho, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling (missing this week with injury). But what if Calvert-Lewin or Barnes have a stormer against Wales? If the choice is between The Plan, and an XI to win the game on the night, where will Southgate stack his chips?
Let’s be frank about this: Southgate wouldn’t be bringing in so many new faces if he had a firm grasp on his best team. And so the next week offers a chance to derive some genuine insight, to fit some pieces into the puzzle, to mould this rich if uneven pipeline of talent into something more closely resembling a cogent whole. As of now, however, there are far more questions than answers.