LONDON — Iceland has so little resistance at Wembley that Gareth Southgate has learned little about his English players to prove his pre-match testimony that this group wants to play for their country, no matter what the circumstances. The Three Lions did not have an easy 4-0 winner who could enter the calendar year. They took the opportunity to give their opinion, because there is nothing to play for after missing qualifying for the UEFA Confederations Cup final and losing in Belgium last Sunday.
Southgate now has a four month break for its next game against England, and there are many things to watch out for next summer’s postponed Euro 2020. These are the areas that a man in his fifties has to clean up before England tries to put an end to the 55-year-old waiting for a big international trophy.
Southgate is constantly faced with the question of whether England is dangerous enough in their favourite 3-4-3 system and would therefore welcome their potential against Iceland.
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Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jack Graylish were excellent players when the hosts got the game under control early on and pushed Iceland to the edge of their own box for a long time. Iceland has already pulled out of group A2, taking over the baton from boss Eric Hamren in the final and playing the last 36 minutes with ten men, but it is encouraging to see the trio combining so effectively throughout the match. Bukayo Saka and Kiran Trippier helped England to increase Iceland’s lead on the field. The remarkable advantage of this system is that Harry Maguire stepped forward when the central satellite was down on the left.
Supporters of a return to 4-3-3 will not remain silent on this issue, but Southgate’s belief in the current system is reinforced by the dominance they have shown here.
It is just over a year since the debate erupted as to whether Rahim Sterling, Harry Kane and Judoon Sancho are the top three consoles in world football. If Euro 2020 had taken place on time, the only uncertainty would have been whether Markus Rashford Sancho would have replaced him given his continued growth in Manchester United, but now the conversation is clearly different.
The South Gates may have changed formation, but England still plays with three players that differ in tempo and strength from Rushford and Sancho.
Grealish and Mount could not support Kane when England tried to break through against Belgium, and were more threatening when the Southgate side controlled the property. And here again it is demonstrated that the tricks of Fodin and Grial are the right tool to unlock the notoriously disciplined and organized defense. Foden embraced an achievement that would go a long way to repairing the damage he had caused by his negligence in knocking down Iceland with two perfectly taken goals, a second penalty with a long-distance shot five minutes of time.
There are many different options for Southgate and these should allow England to tailor its approach to specific tasks, but this increases the pressure on the Director to do the right thing at the right time, when it matters most.
Injury alone gives Kane a place in Southgate’s favourite starting line-up, but it irritates the Tottenham Hotspur striker, who has already played six games without a goal and has not scored in a shortened schedule for his country, albeit in 2020.
Fault! The file name is not specified. England passed Wednesday’s test with difficulty in their 4-0 Icelandic League of Nations tournament. NEIL HALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Southgate cited a stronger occupation than many expected given the low stakes. Indeed, the inclusion of, among others, Kane, Grealish, Mount and Eric Animal can be interpreted as the manager of England telling all clubs in the Premier League that the choice of the team is not dictated to him, whether in secret or otherwise. He said that some players were under pressure not to play international football to minimize the risk of injury, and deploying so many key players seemed to send a message here to some people, of whom Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho, who had previously expressed concern about Kane’s treatment, was the most obvious.
He probably vaguely noticed that Kane was already there 76 minutes, just as Aston Villa manager Dean Smith played a role in all three games in England this month against Grealish, one of the three players who did. Southgate urged players to think together about the welfare of the players – the return of five reserve players to the Premier League is a popular concept around the world – but in the coming months he will have to work with his club colleagues to protect himself from burnout when the final is reached.
England worked hard to bring their players to their physical peak two years ago in Russia, after a series of tournaments and widespread fatigue. This season’s abridged schedule will only increase these concerns.
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Declan Rice lifted England in the 20th minute with his first international goal, accidentally using his shoulder to look into Foden’s penalty area, but perhaps more importantly to support Mount so he could use the ball quickly and effectively in the middle area.
One of England’s weaknesses for a long time is the lack of a metronome in midfield, a player who can put pressure on England in the form of the Croat Luca Modrik or the Dutchman Frankie De Jong. Rice is not the right player, but his combination with Mount kept England in control of the game. Against their best opponents, Southgate Jordan Henderson opted for a better defense, and with Harry Winks making another encouraging contribution, several players are fighting for the right balance. The central midfielder will remain perhaps the biggest uncertainty in England in the coming months.
Jordan Pikford took the international break and was faced with a request for a replacement goalkeeper, but Southgate continues to keep Everton’s goalkeeper. He was never tested here – Iceland could not score any goal of the evening – but he is not responsible for Sunday’s 2-0 defeat in Belgium and saves his No1 jersey for New Year’s Eve.
Nick Pope and Dean Henderson have gone half of every match against Ireland this week without admitting a goal, and the first match seems to be Pikford’s closest rival. In the second half of the season, Caramel number one will have to improve its performance at club level to keep the Pope at bay.