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England at Euro 2024: Why Gareth Southgate looks set to stick rather than twist against Denmark

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England beat Serbia 1-0 in their opening game of Euro 2024 but were unimpressive in victory; Trent Alexander-Arnold and Phil Foden struggled but Gareth Southgate looks set to keep them in his XI against Denmark on Thursday

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It would be very difficult for England to fail to qualify for the knockout stages from here.

One more point from the final two Group C games would almost certainly do it. But, of course, a draw and a defeat from games against Denmark and Slovenia would lead to a cacophony of criticism – England’s ambitions are way loftier than merely making it to the last 16 of the Euros.

Maybe that is why there has been such a negative reaction from media and fans to the largely lacklustre performance against Serbia, even though the team were brilliant for half an hour, won the game, kept a clean sheet, a host of important senior players got some much-needed game time and Jude Bellingham reminded everyone what a generational talent he is.

England prepare for their Euros encounter against Denmark

When you put it like that, it all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, I don’t expect Gareth Southgate to make any changes to his starting XI for Thursday’s game in Frankfurt.

He is on course to stick with Trent Alexander-Arnold in that central midfield role, even though he doesn’t play there for Liverpool and his statistics from the Serbia game were mixed.

Trent Alexander-Arnold's stats vs Serbia

Trent’s long passing stats

Trent Alexander-Arnold attempted six long distances passes against Serbia, the most of any outfield player. He completed four of them, a joint-high with Jude Bellingham, who completed all four of his four attempted long distance passes.

Alexander-Arnold didn’t win a tackle in the 69 minutes he was on the field. He only regained possession once. Declan Rice managed that nine times.

However, it would be wrong to criticise Alexander-Arnold too strongly for his struggles in the defensive areas of midfield. That is what Rice is in the team for. It is not what Alexander-Arnold is in the team for and it would be wrong to compare the two in that way.

Southgate says the Liverpool player is still learning his central role for England and, if you look at his heat map against Serbia, that is obvious.

Trent Alexander-Arnold's stats against Serbia

It looks almost identical to his heat map for the whole of the Premier League season, where he’s operated almost entirely – when in the final two thirds of the pitch – on the right flank. That would suggest he hasn’t really adapted to the discipline of the central-midfield task he has with England, compared with the inverted full-back role he plays for Liverpool.

Again, maybe we shouldn’t criticise him too much. He has only played in the position a few times so far for his country and he is such an intelligent footballer. Who is to say he won’t continue to improve as the tournament progresses?

Former manager Roy Hodgson has backed England to keep progressing at the Euros in Germany

Much fairer is to look at Alexander-Arnold’s passing statistics. That is what he is in the team for – and he had an 88.1 per cent pass-completion rate.

Some of the audacious passes he tried were beyond the capabilities of most other outfield players on the pitch. He made more long passes than any other outfield player and completed two-thirds of them. Only Jude Bellingham could match that.

We should remember, also, that Southgate has been criticised throughout his tenure for being too ‘safe’ in his team selections. For not being bold enough to prioritise his offensively-minded players. For – in the last two tournaments – tending to opt for two holding midfield players in his starting XI.

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It would be hypocritical to criticise him now for trying to accommodate England’s best ball-player.

However, it didn’t quite work against Serbia and, in the second half, England were thoroughly outgunned in midfield. Remember, the position is not yet natural to Alexander-Arnold, who drops into right-back when Liverpool don’t have the ball. He is still learning the positional discipline and defensive requirements of the role.

For Conor Gallagher, all of that comes naturally and it is where he has excelled for Chelsea all season. All of that means Southgate has a real conundrum in central midfield.

England's Harry Kane celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the Euro 2020 soccer semifinal match between England and Denmark at Wembley stadium in London, Wednesday, July 7, 2021.

So should Southgate start with Gallagher instead of Alexander-Arnold against Denmark? That would undoubtedly make England much more secure, enable them to play their aggressive pressing game and lead to more midfield control.

However, without Alexander-Arnold as the ‘quarterback’, it would also reduce the team’s ability to break quickly, to find a killer pass from deep, and compromise them from set-pieces.

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Alexander-Arnold’s dead-ball delivery was poor against Serbia. In truth, England’s attacking threat from free-kicks and corners has been blunted considerably in the absence of Harry Maguire and that hasn’t helped the Liverpool player.

But there is no doubt England will be more dangerous from restarts in this tournament if Alexander-Arnold is on the pitch.

Another issue for Southgate to address is the form and fitness of his captain, Harry Kane. I expect him to lead the line from the start against Denmark but, having played the full 90 minutes against Serbia, will he be able to do so again three days later?

Kane is still building fitness and sharpness after almost a month out with a back problem and he remains a shadow of his usual self.

One explosive goal-bound header aside, he was ineffective against Serbia and the match stats show he was nowhere near his brilliant best.

Harry Kane's stats against Serbia

He touched the ball just twice in the first half, had one attempt on goal and one dribble, and his expected goals output suggested that, on this form, he will score once every five games.

Those stats are about as un-Kane-like as you can get. He is not himself. But the feeling inside the England camp is that, once he builds his fitness, he will be back to his old self and peaking in time for the business end of the competition. England’s fans will hope so too.

It may well be that Kane is withdrawn at some point in the second half against Denmark – probably on 60 or 70 minutes, if the game is going as England want it to and they have a decent lead.

If not, you suspect Southgate will leave ‘Mr Reliable’ on the pitch for much longer – so long as he doesn’t risk injury. He will be thinking: ‘What if England’s get a penalty? What if the best chance drops and Kane isn’t on the pitch?’

Kobbie Mainoo 'ready' to make England impact when selected

That is the way the England manager thinks – and he is right to about the country’s all-time leading goalscorer.

Nevertheless, Ollie Watkins and Ivan Toney will be feeling much more confident about the prospect of getting some game time on Thursday.

And then there’s Phil Foden. It is unthinkable that Southgate might drop the Premier League Player of the Season, isn’t it?

It was just as unthinkable, for a decade in the early 2000s, that England might have dropped one of the generational talents of Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard when they were both vying to play in the same position in the same England team. Maybe Sven-Goran Eriksson should have done so, though.

The truth is that Foden and Bellingham want to fulfil the same role for England. They both prefer the No 10 role and, when they are on the field together, they tend to make the same runs and hunt down the same balls.

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That is why Southgate has farmed Foden out to the left, far away from the central and right-flanked roles he plays so majestically for Manchester City.

In a straight shoot-out for the No 10 position, Bellingham wins every time. His performance against Serbia will have only reinforced that in the manager’s mind. So where does that leave Foden?

Almost certainly with another wide-left position against Denmark. Foden is given the freedom to drift and find space inside, but he looks uncertain about where best to be. What is instinctive for Manchester City seems ponderous and uncomfortable for England. His brilliant ball-playing skills and sniping, direct running have been noticeable by their absence of late.

Like Alexander-Arnold, Foden’s fabulous football mind may mean he adapts to the role and begins to show his best as England progress. But there have been precious few signs to support that hope in recent internationals.

It looks like Southgate will keep faith with Foden and resist the temptation to bring in the unpredictable and prolific Cole Palmer, or the industrious and pacey Jarrod Bowen or Anthony Gordon.

Michael Owen praises Jude Bellingham for being a 'credit' to football on and off the pitch following his match winning goal in England's opening game against Serbia.

Bowen was mightily impressive when he came off the bench against Serbia. In the little time he had on the pitch, his work-rate and battling for the ball disrupted Serbia, when they’d previously wrestled the midfield initiative.

He has the ability to drive England through the thirds, allowing England’s defenders to push up the pitch and prevent the pressure mounting in their defensive third. The same can be said about Gordon.

Southgate confirmed on Wednesday that Luke Shaw will be unavailable, meaning that Kieran Trippier – who suffered with cramp in the second half against Serbia – is set to start at left-back.

Assuming the conditioning and fitness statistics being provided in private to the England manager show no concerns – and we acknowledge the inevitability of Kane starting against Denmark – there were only really two positions Southgate was pondering: central midfield and left wing.

The England manager tends to use a pretty settled side in tournament football from one match to the next, unless there are injury problems. I expect him to do the same here.

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