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England vs Czech Republic: Time for Gareth Southgate to release attacking handbrake

·4-min read
England vs Czech Republic: Time for Gareth Southgate to release attacking handbrake
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Gareth Southgate entered these European Championship finals with more attacking talent than he knew what to do with.

It is why Jadon Sancho is yet to kick a ball in anger; why Jack Grealish has played barely half an hour; it is where England's true strength lies. Now, Southgate must play to the squad's strengths and unleash an attack with the talent to rival any team in the tournament.

Confirmation that he is sticking with Harry Kane for the final Group D game against the Czech Republic tomorrow is a promising start. England's captain has become a scapegoat for their toothless displays so far, ignoring the complete lack of service he has had to work with against Croatia and Scotland.

Provide Kane with chances and he will score.

News that Sancho is in the mix to play is also encouraging. A change is needed in attack and Sancho's speed and trickery are the type of qualities to liven up England's staid performances up front in their opening two group games.

Raheem Sterling has received criticism for his display against Scotland on Friday, yet he created England's best openings on the back of scoring the winner against Croatia. No other England player has looked as likely to open up defences as the Manchester City forward.

While Southgate can tinker with his forward line — Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Grealish could all make cases to start at Wembley tomorrow night — the team's struggles are more about system than personnel.

It was difficult to decipher if Friday's frustrations were the result of Scotland's discipline and heart or Southgate's caution. As the Wembley crowd called for England to attack, their manager opted to stick with shape. He played not to lose and, without any sense of urgency, the game petered out.

By the end, Southgate's side had mustered just one shot on target, compared to Scotland's two. Against Croatia, England managed just two.

These are not the statistics of a free-flowing team, one taking the game to their opponents.

The question is whether Southgate can shake off that natural caution and give England the freedom to go out and win games, rather than patiently wait for their openings, while rarely taking a chance and forcing the issue.

Southgate's assistant, Steve Holland, insists managing England is not Fantasy Football. You do not just get to throw in all of your attacking talents and expect to create alchemy.

He cites Argentina in 2018 as the example of what not to be: one hot, sweaty mess, personified by their wired coach Jorge Sampaoli, who frantically stalked the touchline at the last World Cup.

But there is a middle ground. Right now, England's attack is less than the sum of its parts.

Yes, Southgate is fielding his most potent forces, but with little support and a system that restricts them, their inclusion feels like an empty gesture. Against Scotland, he played two of his more attacking full-backs in Reece James and Luke Shaw, yet neither provided the crosses they would normally do at club level.

Compare that to Andrew Robertson, who was one of Scotland's most potent weapons, just as he is for Liverpool.

James and Shaw were too concerned about keeping the door shut at the back.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Likewise, the combination of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, so impressive against Croatia, set an overly negative tone on Friday night. Mason Mount was the only midfielder pressing forward in support of the attackers and came closest to scoring of anyone for England in open play.

Two holding midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation naturally limits a team from an attacking point of view, with six of your starting XI, plus the goalkeeper, more concerned with the defensive side of the game.

The return of Harry Maguire and the potential of a back three may go some way to providing Southgate with the width his team have lacked so far — allowing James and Shaw to get further forward. It also opens up the potential to put Grealish or Foden (below) in a No10 role at the point of midfield.

But aside from systems or selections, it is an issue of attitude.

England's caution and control against Croatia was understandable in the context of the heat, the fact that it was their opening game of the tournament and they were playing the team that knocked them out of the World Cup at the semi-final stage three years ago.

Against Scotland a similar approach raised questions as to whether England are too one-dimensional. Is this all that Southgate has got?

For all the talk of being a work in progress, there is no doubting the quality the manager has at his disposal, particularly in attack.

He loaded his 26-man squad with a glittering array of forward options. It is down to him to make them shine — and releasing the handbrake would be a start.

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