England’s defeat to the Czech Republic exposed fundamental flaws, leaving Gareth Southgate with plenty to ponder as he seeks a response against Bulgaria.
England will qualify for Euro 2020 with victory in Sofia on Monday if Kosovo fail to win themselves, but Friday’s defeat following a wretched performance has made them wait. The chastening evening in Prague served, by Southgate’s admission, as a reality check ahead of next summer’s finals.
“There is a lot of work to be done to be a really top team,” the England boss conceded at his post-match press conference – but have his team actually gone backwards?
That was the sentiment of the Sunday Supplement panel as they dissected England’s anaemic display.
“Hope was so built up by that World Cup semi-final appearance… but now it seems like England have completely lost their direction,” said Shaun Custis, Head of Sport at The Sun.
Does Custis have a valid point or is it a complete overreaction?
That question won’t be categorically answered until after Euro 2020 but Southgate can help get the disbelievers back in his corner with a positive display and result in Sofia.
Bulgaria are rock-bottom of Group A after a winless run that makes the days of Hristo Stoichkov and Dimitar Berbatov feel like far-distant memories. Harry Kane scored a hat-trick in the corresponding fixture at Wembley as England maintained their perfect start to Euro 2020 qualification with a 4-0 victory.
Bulgaria will provide a sterner test back on home soil – a view backed up by Berbatov – but there will be plenty of eyes on the performance level of the Three Lions. Anything but a convincing win will be scrutinised.
Change defensive structure?
There will be at least one enforced change in England’s starting XI, as Danny Rose is suspended which will see Ben Chilwell return to the left side of the England defence – but a complete reshuffle in the back-line could be on the cards.
Southgate has admitted he will consider reverting to three at the back to bolster a defence that has conceded five goals in two games. It’s not the goals conceded column that will be worrying Southgate, it’s the amount of shots they are allowing the opposition to have on Jordan Pickford’s goal. Playing with two-centre backs does allow an extra body to support Harry Kane in what is a world-class attacking unit, but it’s exposing England the other way.
Spain managed 24 shots in England’s 3-2 win last October, Netherlands peppered Pickford’s goal with 29 efforts in the Nations League semi-final, and Czech Republic managed 17 on Friday night.
The comfort of having a third centre-back also seems to suit Harry Maguire, who flourished in that system at the World Cup and is the man Southgate wants to build his defensive shape around. Allowing him more protection at a time when confidence is low might just give England far more control in possession than they did on Friday night. Maguire was the trigger point for many of England’s attacks at the World Cup, striding forward out of the back three. A switch could do him a world of good.
Michael Keane could make way after a second shaky performance in a row for England on Friday, with Tyrone Mings set for an England debut, according to Sky Sports News. Joe Gomez also is an option at the heart of the defence, as is Fikayo Tomori, who has shown fantastic early season form for Chelsea.
A reshuffle is under consideration by Southgate.
Questioned on his formation after defeat in Prague, he said: “I think we are in a difficult situation in terms of the players that have played international football with us in that area of the pitch [defence] and who are playing regularly with their clubs. So, that’s part of the reason we didn’t do that [switch to a three-man back line against the Czechs]. It’s certainly something we’ve considered and I don’t think we can dismiss.
“I’m not sure, ahead of Monday, if that’s the right thing to do but we’re very aware and assessing those things.”
No centre of excellence
England’s struggles in central midfield hindered their progress at key points at the World Cup and at the Nations League finals and judging by Friday’s performance, it’s an area where Southgate has yet to find a solution.
Mason Mount replaced Ross Barkley in the starting line-up in Prague 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. It unbalanced England hugely with a midfield two of Rice and Henderson – both not known for their creative forward passing – struggling against the press from Czech Republic.
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.
Should Harry 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 off the bench to get back into the XI?
Predicted England line-up
Pickford; Trippier, Mings, Maguire, Chilwell; Barkley, Winks, Henderson; Sancho, Kane, Sterling.
Earlier this week, Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham – who was the victim of racial abuse on social media earlier this season – suggested England’s players could defy UEFA’s racism protocols and walk off the pitch as a team if they are subjected to racist abuse.
Despite the sanctions imposed on his country for racially aggravated offences, Bulgaria boss Krasimir Balakov controversially claimed English football has a bigger racism problem.
“What I can say is that I don’t think we have a problem,” he said.
“In the Bulgarian championship, we have a lot of players of different ethnicities and skin colour. I don’t think that we have this big problem like, for example, England do.
“What I meant was that in the Bulgarian championship, we’ve not had such problems.
“While there have been incidents in various levels of English football involving racism, which I consider something normal because it’s a big country with a very diverse population.
“But we don’t have this problem in Bulgaria, I can assure you of that.”
Watch England highlights for free on Sky Sports
Watch highlights of all of England’s eight European Qualifiers for free with Sky Sports – including Bulgaria vs England on Monday night.
The best bits from each game will be available on skysports.com, the Sky Sports app and the YouTube channel from 15 minutes after full-time – and you won’t need a Sky Sports subscription to tune in.
Follow Bulgaria vs England with our live on the Sky Sports website and app, as well as with Sky Sports News’ Euro Goal Zone; Kick-off 7.45pm. Watch highlights shortly after full-time.