England vs Switzerland: Little at stake in Nations League third place play-off but lots for Gareth Southgate to learn, The World Cup was only one year ago but if Thursday night taught England anything it was that they have to keep changing, improving, and trying to put as much distance as possible between Russia and now
It hardly matters whether England finish third or fourth in the UEFA Nations League, but that does not mean that there is nothing to gain from Sunday’s game against Switzerland.
The World Cup was only one year ago but if Thursday night taught England anything it was that they have to keep changing, improving, and trying to put as much distance as possible between Russia and now.
Gareth Southgate said in his pre-match press conference on Saturday afternoon that “every time we take the field, we are learning”, and clearly there is plenty more for the team to learn. Especially when it comes to the question of which of the World Cup players will still in Southgate’s team at the Euros next summer.
It might have felt in Russia as if Southgate had landed on a team to last for years, but the evidence since then has suggested otherwise. In fact, of the World Cup team, there are more players now with questions hanging over them than there are guaranteed starters.
There is no challenge to Jordan Pickford in goal, although he has not had the best season since his heroics in Russia.
But look at the back three from Russia – Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire – and none of them impressed against the Netherlands in Guimaraes. All three of them now have serious challenges to their position.
Walker’s role has changed, of course, as England have moved from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3, returning him to the role that he plays for Manchester City. But the challenge posed by Trent Alexander-Arnold is stronger than ever. And the slip Walker made on Thursday, letting Memphis Depay in, could count against him.
Stones had a worse night though, making three bad slips, effectively gifting Holland the opening that put them 2-1 up. Having barely played for Manchester City after Christmas – for the second season in a row – there are serious questions about how much Pep Guardiola trusts him. The fact that City are interested in signing England team-mate Maguire says something about that.
England’s most naturally gifted centre-back is Joe Gomez, who was injured for the World Cup and missed five months of this season with a broken leg. But he will play against Switzerland and if he has a strong season for Liverpool next year he will surely be one of the first names on the team-sheet next summer.
Of England’s two World Cup wing-backs, Ashley Young was dropped by Southgate last year and Kieran Trippier cut from the 23-man squad. Given the form of Aaron Wan Bissaka for Crystal Palace, Trippier may now even be England’s fourth choice centre-back.
In midfield England are no closer knowing their best combination, but of the three who started in Russia – Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard – only the Liverpool captain is a certain starter. In competitive games since Southgate has started Ross Barkley, Fabian Delph, Eric Dier, Declan Rice and Harry Winks but is no closer to knowing what the right combination is.
In Russia it felt as if Alli and Lingard were too similar to be a sustainable combination, which is why the fluency of Winks is so attractive, and why he was such a miss to England on Thursday night, as they lost control of midfield in a big game yet again. Ruben Loftus-Cheek would surely have played here too, had he not got injured at the end of the season.
Up front there is no real challenge to Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, while Marcus Rashford is one of the main beneficiaries of the formation change since Russia. Although the electric form of Jadon Sancho for Borussia Dortmund this season could pose a threat to him over the next 12 months.
Ultimately, Kane, Sterling, Pickford and Henderson are the only World Cup players who are surely guaranteed of starting at Euro 2020, presuming England qualify. The other seven spots are up for grabs. If Southgate can learn more on Sunday about who he can count on, and who he cannot, then this will not have been a wasted trip.