England need to change – and that means dropping Jude Bellingham | Jacob Steinberg

Estimated read time 6 min read

Your best players are still your best players. Your best team is not necessarily the one with all the best players on the pitch. Unfortunately England are in that place again. Much like Sven-Göran Eriksson failing to utilise Michael Carrick at the 2006 World Cup, or Roy Hodgson putting Wayne Rooney in his midfield at Euro 2016, Gareth Southgate has fallen into a familiar trap. His tactics are leaden, his starting XI is unbalanced and one of his biggest mistakes – being seduced into fitting too many similar types into a one-paced attack – has made England by far the hardest team to watch at Euro 2024.

The good news, though, is that there is time to fix England before their last-16 tie in Gelsenkirchen. Nothing drastic needs to be done. A few tweaks could easily help England to build on their slight improvement in the second half of their draw with Slovenia. The question is whether Southgate is bold enough to make them.

The first change is obvious enough: Conor Gallagher out, Kobbie Mainoo in; get the teenager on the ball in midfield and don’t worry about his defensive weaknesses. As for the second, Southgate has to address the left-back problem. He needs to recognise that Kieran Trippier is struggling on the ball and is also going to be targeted by better attacks.

This is not the moment to wait for Luke Shaw to regain full fitness. Ian Wright has thought outside the box, suggesting the left-footed Bukayo Saka at left‑back, a position the winger played in his youth. Something less defensively vulnerable, though, would be moving Kyle Walker left and starting Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back. Still unbalanced? Yes. Walker is not left-footed. But he is not overlapping much on the right, and using Alexander-Arnold in his actual position, with freedom to drift into the auxiliary midfield role he occupies for Liverpool, could give England more control in possession.

It is a moment for flexibility. Given access to an array of exciting forwards, Southgate is not making it work. Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham are occupying the same space and Saka is running out of steam on the right. This could be the biggest call of Southgate’s reign: does he have it in him to look past reputation when it comes to Foden, Bellingham and Saka?

England’s Cole Palmer comes on for Bukayo SakaView image in fullscreen

Part of the decision could be made for him after Foden flew home on Wednesday to attend to a family matter. It is unclear if he will he back for the game on Sunday. England hope to have him available. Either way, it is worrying to recall Southgate, who is probably one defeat from losing his job, saying “your best players are still your best players” before facing Slovenia. There was no ripping it up after the incoherent 1-1 draw with Denmark. Foden was still sort of on the left. Bellingham was still trying to do too much in the middle. Saka was on the right, looking exhausted. Harry Kane was up front, looking slow. England were wretched. There is no evidence this formula is suddenly going to click. Persisting with it is asking for trouble.

Different angles are required. Bringing in Cole Palmer, who played with swagger after coming on against Slovenia, for Saka needs to happen. But don’t stop there. England also need speed on the flanks. Foden is going to miss training sessions, which makes him vulnerable if Southgate finally starts Anthony Gordon on the left. In different circumstances, though, the right call would be to move Foden inside and drop Bellingham.

Anthony Gordon in the goalless draw with SloveniaView image in fullscreen

This was supposed to be Bellingham’s stage. Winning the Champions League with Real Madrid was supposed to be the start. He was sensational in the first half of England’s opening game, overpowering Serbia, scoring the winner when he headed in Saka’s deflected cross.

But it was interesting that Southgate noted Bellingham packing 90 minutes of running into 45 minutes. He saw the midfielder fade in the second half against Serbia. In Madrid Carlo Ancelotti has used Bellingham as a roving false No 9. Does he have the discipline for midfield at the moment? The potential to give England control? The engine? Not against Denmark. Bellingham was ponderous and petulant in Frankfurt. His pressing was non‑existent. He slowed England down by hanging on to the ball.

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It was almost as if Bellingham thinks he has to be Diego Maradona at Mexico ’86. Against Slovenia, though, the vibe was different. He worked harder and drifted left at times. This time the problem was execution. It was striking how often Bellingham lost possession. He looked suffocated by the pressure. Foden, while not perfect, has been in livelier form. He does not deserve to be dropped. Bellingham has just had two stinkers.

Perhaps it is to be expected. For all that is made of his maturity, Bellingham is only 20. He is part of England’s leadership group, but is still learning. Is a flashpoint coming? Gelsenkirchen was where an unfit Wayne Rooney snapped and was sent off for stamping on Portugal’s Ricardo Carvalho in 2006. There has been a lot of arm-flinging and arguing with referees from Bellingham. Opponents are looking to wind him up.

But the bigger consideration remains around form and tactics. Three games in, it is clear that Bellingham and Foden do not fit together if there is no Shaw to provide width from left‑back. Something has to give. Nobody thinks that Gordon is a better player than Foden or Bellingham. Most people agree that England need the Newcastle winger’s directness to stretch the play. International football is often about finding players to carry out specific roles. France, after all, won the 2018 World Cup with the non-scoring Olivier Giroud up front and fashionable players on the bench. “Your best players are still your best players,” was not a line Didier Deschamps adopted.

So Southgate has to choose, if Foden returns before England’s time in Germany is up. Nobody is writing Bellingham off. He is England’s future, but Southgate needs a team for the present. The best players are those who can help England to win what could be four more games, and Bellingham can count himself lucky if he is given another chance on Sunday.

Source: theguardian.com

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