England had cruised through this Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, scoring goals galore against their limited Group A opponents.
But against the Czech Republic on Friday night – where they suffered their first qualifying defeat in 10 years – their long-standing difficulty in building play from the back and up the pitch through midfield resurfaced in glaring fashion.
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The problems were plain to see in the summer at the Nations League finals against the Netherlands, when a lack of options led to England’s centre backs taking costly risks and the team being pegged back in their own third for long periods.
“The deep, embedded problem for English football and England teams is that they had no options to play through midfield,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports at the time.
It was the same story in Prague.
Mason Mount replaced Ross Barkley in the starting line-up after a fine start to the season which had seen him displace his Chelsea team-mate in the Premier League. But rather than slotting in just ahead of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice in a midfield three, the 20-year-old debutant was pushed forwards into a far more advanced role.
Perhaps Southgate had been emboldened by England’s previous big wins in this group, where they had smashed at least four goals in each fixture. But, after the early penalty, it became clear England’s shift to a 4-2-4 only served to amplify the team’s passing problems.
Henderson and Rice acting as a double pivot simply didn’t work. “They’re having no impact on the game,” Roy Keane said at the break on ITV.
The pair were disconnected from the defensive and attacking units either side of them and didn’t give their centre-backs passing options to play forwards.
Harry Maguire and Michael Keane had the most touches of England players in the first-half but Maguire was forced to hit it long on nine occasions in those opening 45 minutes.
It didn’t help that when they did give the ball to Rice and Henderson the midfielders often used it poorly.
Both averaged less than 80 per cent passing accuracy in the first half, with Henderson giving the ball away eight times and Rice completing just one of four passes in Czech Republic’s half.
All this while Harry Winks, Tottenham’s metronome deep-lying pass maker, sat on the bench.
“We were sloppy. We didn’t move it as quick as we normally do,” Harry Kane said after the game.
As for Mount, he was far from the action and only had 21 touches in the first 45 minutes, unable to show any glimpses of the all-action performances he’s been putting on for Chelsea.
As well as denting England’s attacking ambitions, the high turnovers of possession gave Czech Republic plenty of territory and they used it well, winning dangerous set-pieces and taking 10 shots in the first half.
Southgate reverted to 4-3-3 at half-time but Rice’s pass out for a throw within a minute of the restart indicated there wasn’t going to be an instant transformation.
The poor first half performance dragged into the second period, and while England were a little better, they were still well below the required standard when a bad defensive lapse with five minutes to play allowed the Czech Republic to grab the win.
By the final whistle, no England players had lost possession more times than Henderson (20) and Keane (15), underlining the visitors’ badly disjointed display.
So what does Southgate do now?
The England manager is running out of time to find the answer, with Monday’s trip to Bulgaria only followed by a couple of qualifiers in November, two friendlies in March and potentially two warm-up games ahead of Euro 2020.
In terms of systems, he will surely go back to 4-3-3 but questions remain over the personnel in that set-up.
Should Winks be given a chance in Bulgaria? Does Southgate stick with Mount but in a deeper role? Or did Ross Barkley do enough with his bright cameo to get back into the XI?
Dele Alli and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will hope to state their case as the season goes on but, as Neville hinted in the summer, perhaps the technical midfielders who play on the half-turn just aren’t available to Southgate.
Other problems exist.
Some 38 per cent of goals conceded by England since Southgate took charge have come from set-pieces (12/32) – and they should have had another when Patrik Schick failed to tuck in at the back post.
Then there is the debate over who should partner Maguire at centre-back, with a poor performance from Keane – who lost his man for the equaliser and was out of position for the winner – not helping his case on the back of the three goals the team shipped at home to Kosovo last time out.
But it will be England’s midfield make-up which will be dominating Southgate’s thoughts over the coming months.
Unless he can come up with a more effective answer than the one he tried on Friday night, England will come unstuck in familiar fashion next summer.