Gareth Southgate will be left wondering what to make of his England team following their two final qualifying matches for Euro 2024. Firstly, against Malta on Friday night, then again against North Macedonia the Three Lions were screaming out for inspiration and energy against opponents more than 50 places below them in the world rankings.
There are a few caveats to take note of when addressing these performances. Southgate has had to manage injuries to key players, with Jude Bellingham’s absence leaving a huge hole in midfield and there being no clear first choice left-back. Then there’s the fact that the Three Lions had already qualified for next summer’s tournament before this international break began. There was no need for urgency or a drive to pick up vital points. They were allowed to coast through these games, and for the most part they did.
As the England boss ponders his next move in planning for the European Championship, he may look back on these two contests at what went well.
Mainly the development of the next generation of England stars.
There has always been a willingness from Southgate to bring through enterprising youngsters while also persisting with the same players that have brought the national team such good fortune since he took charge. In his tenure as head coach he has handed debuts to over 50 players, the most recent recipient being Manchester City’s Rico Lewis who started his first match for the England against North Macedonia tonight.
With the announcement that Euro 2024 is reducing squads back down to 23-players, following a Covid hit Euro 2020 and a winter World Cup in Qatar, Southgate will be forced into some difficult decisions on who to cut. Does he stick with those who’ve performed in the past but may be injured or out of form? Or does he take a chance on the youth and back them on the most pressure-filled stage?
The signs are there that Southgate is thinking about the latter. Rico Lewis certainly did his chances of going to the tournament no harm on his debut. During a Player of the Match performance, he was a bundle of energy filling in at left-back when England had slim options to choose from. He pushed into midfield, joined the attack, found space, took shots, tracked back and was seemingly all over the pitch. A harsh penalty decision going against him did not seem to dampen his spirts after the game either.
There has also been a desire to find the right role for Phil Foden. He started off the right against Malta but played centrally versus North Macedonia. Those two spots will be nailed down by Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham for the tournament, if both are fit, but Foden’s versatility is a positive and his role as creator this evening was executed brilliantly though England didn’t take their chances.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, meanwhile, was the only constant midfielder against both North Macedonia and Malta. His quality on the ball is well known and Southgate looks to be positioning him as a potential replacement for Kalvin Phillips. While Alexander-Arnold performed admirably against Malta he grew frustrated in a tougher and more physical contest against North Macedonia and failed to fully control the game. Phillips, though not playing much for Manchester City, has shown he is a capable partner to Declan Rice at the base of the midfield. With places in the squad limited, will Southgate go for the riskier route or the well-trodden one?
These are a taste of the decisions that will determine if England can win the Euros next year. Their final two qualifying games of 2023 were dull affairs, destined to be forgotten to time, but there were sparks of a bright future on display.
The onus is now on Gareth Southgate to make it a reality.