England sealed qualification to Euro 2020 with their 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro on Thursday, but what’s on Gareth Southgate’s to-do list ahead of next summer’s tournament?
Ensure squad harmony remains
Raheem Sterling’s altercation with Joe Gomez – and the resulting fallout – presented Southgate with arguably the biggest test of his England tenure.
Some praised him for adopting a strong stance by leaving Sterling out of the game against Montenegro, but others – including some members of the squad, according to reports – feel he overreacted. It should also be noted that, before players intervened, Southgate’s initial decision was to instruct Sterling to leave the camp altogether.
That Southgate was willing to backtrack on that instinct shows the complexity and sensitivity of the situation. His first challenge was to punish Sterling without upsetting the rest of the squad. He found a compromise there. His next challenge, though, is to ensure the bad blood does not linger.
All the noises out of the camp since the incident have been positive, of course. Sterling and Gomez have made up and insisted the incident is behind them. But Southgate will be aware of how club divisions undermined previous England teams and he will also be wary of how the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester City is intensifying.
The latest England squad contains six players from the two clubs – Gomez, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Trent Alexander-Arnold from Liverpool and Sterling and John Stones from Manchester City – and that number could grow if Kyle Walker returns to the fold.
It represents a significant chunk of the squad and, having placed togetherness and team spirit at the heart of his England vision since the start of his reign, Southgate can ill-afford divisions and disagreements to creep into the equation now. The early signs are encouraging, but the situation will require more care and attention in the months ahead.
Settle on a stable partner for Maguire
Since switching from a back three to a back four last year, Southgate has used six different centre-back partnerships in 13 games. He clearly intends to persist with the new formation, but the chopping and changing suggests he has still not settled on his preferred personnel.
He has used Harry Maguire and Michael Keane most commonly during this period – pairing them together in five of the 13 games – but while the former’s place appears safe, the latter’s prospects look bleaker than ever after his shaky form cost him his place in the side against Bulgaria last month.
Southgate turned to a new face in that game, with Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings impressing on his debut, helping England secure a clean sheet and also keeping his composure in the face of sickening racist abuse from sections of the home fans in Sofia.
Against Montenegro, however, Southgate went back to Stones. The 25-year-old returned to the side with something to prove having made two glaring individual errors on his last appearance for England, in the Nations League lost to the Netherlands, but Southgate will hope his solid showing on Thursday can help him put his recent struggles behind him.
Mings will continue to stake his claim. Gomez and Fikayo Tomori will be eager to force their way into the team too. But stability and familiarity are crucial to all good centre-back pairings. Southgate must pick his man and stick with him ahead of next summer’s tournament.
Establish midfield control
Can Southgate put together a midfield capable of controlling games against top opposition? It is a long-standing issue which was glaringly apparent in last year’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia and again at the Nations League finals against the Netherlands. Since then, even Kosovo have been able to take advantage.
Southgate has been able to find ways around it in the past, most notably when England produced a devastating display of counter-attacking football during their 3-2 win over Spain in October of last year. But a little more technical proficiency in the middle of the park is surely a must if they are to go the distance next summer.
England do not have a player of Luka Modric or Frenkie de Jong’s ilk ready and waiting to step in, unfortunately, but Southgate will be encouraged by what Harry Winks has brought to the team having replaced Declan Rice in their last two games.
The Tottenham man, who has been likened to Xavi and Andres Iniesta by Mauricio Pochettino, completed 119 passes out of 124 against Bulgaria, helping England maintain total dominance of the game, and it was a similar story against Montenegro as he found a team-mate with 85 of his 89 passes.
Southgate may decide a player like Rice would give England more defensive security against stronger opponents in a major tournament setting, but it is Winks who provides England’s best hope of control. History suggests he would be wise to bear that in mind ahead of Euro 2020.
Identify a creative hub
Southgate requires creativity in his midfield as well as control, of course.
England were largely reliant on their wing-backs for creativity at the World Cup, with Kieran Trippier creating more chances (24) than any other player in the competition, the majority of which came from set-piece deliveries. But while Ben Chilwell and Alexander-Arnold offered plenty of attacking threat against Montenegro, the switch to a back four means there is more onus on the midfield to share the creative burden.
Southgate has chosen Ross Barkley for that job for much of England’s qualifying campaign, but the Chelsea man was absent with an injury for the thrashing of Montenegro and – with Henderson also suspended – Mason Mount and Oxlade-Chamberlain were brought in instead.
Mount was tidy enough, but it was Oxlade-Chamberlain who most strongly staked his claim for a starting spot. Southgate has made no secret of the fact that he viewed the Liverpool man as a guaranteed starter before injury ruled him out of last year’s World Cup. His goalscoring display at Wembley will have placed him back at the forefront of his manager’s mind.
Of course, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mount are not the only others in the frame. James Maddison had to settle for a place on the bench against Montenegro, but did get a chance as a substitute, while there has also been a clamour from elsewhere for Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish to be given a chance. Southgate must decide who to go with.
Solve full-back dilemma
England are blessed with impressive depth at full-back, but that depth creates dilemmas for Southgate. Who will occupy his full-back spots for the first game of Euro 2020?
Against Montenegro, he opted for Alexander-Arnold at right back and Ben Chilwell on the left. The latter provided a hat-trick of assists and has now played more minutes (360) than any other full-back during England’s qualifying campaign, suggesting he has edged ahead of Danny Rose in Southgate’s pecking order.
At right-back, however, it seems Southgate still has a decision to make. Alexander-Arnold also impressed against Montenegro, his cross setting up Kane’s hat-trick goal, but it was only his second start in qualifying, with Southgate generally preferring Trippier up until now.
Those two are not the only ones vying for the place either. Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Manchester City’s Walker and even Chelsea youngster Reece James will also be eager to catch Southgate’s eye in the months ahead. The England boss will be monitoring them all closely.