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Tactical Analysis: England their own enemy in unconvincing 1-0 win over Serbia

As England stepped onto the pitch at Euro 2024, Gareth Southgate was not just tasked with bringing the Three Lions’ 58-year trophy drought to an end.

He was expected to break out of the perhaps unfair caricature thrust upon him by England fans: that of the scrupulous coach curtailing the gifts of the most talented coterie of English players the country has possessed in decades.

In their 1-0 victory over Serbia, he did little to shed that perception. The Three Lions earned a valuable three points, but their performance was anything but convincing, reflecting a cautiousness that belied their immense attacking potential.

England built in a back three, with Kyle Walker joining John Stones and Marc Guehi to sit behind Declan Rice in possession. Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden were given significant license to drift across the midfield line; dropping deep to receive the ball from the center-backs, pushing into the half-spaces to combine with England’s attackers, and — as Bellingham did so spectacularly for his goal — crashing the box as a late runner.

Foden seemed to be lost with such a license. He tended to be more conservative in his positioning than Bellingham, lodging himself in the left-space, somewhat awkwardly avoiding both the wide areas where he could isolate opposition defenders and central pockets where he could pick passes.

Bellingham, by contrast, thrived, not skipping a beat from his imperious season with Real Madrid and dazzling with his combination of passing range, timing, ball carrying, and defensive grit.

Alongside Bellingham in midfield was Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose inclusion in the centre of the pitch was the cause of much intrigue during the lead-up to the match. In theory, his selection was to provide England with a player to unpick Serbia’s stubborn defensive block.

Indeed, for the first thirty minutes, it appeared to be the sort of game that would suit the Liverpool talisman’s strengths. Serbia sat relatively deep in a 5-4-1 block, applying instead pressure in midfield but leaving vast space in deeper areas for Alexander-Arnold to launch direct passes.

In reality, though, as the game endured, it was Alexander-Arnold’s weaknesses that began to take centre stage. His lapses in concentration defensively, his discomfort playing the ball out of pressure, and his general lack of chemistry with many of his England teammates all came to hinder his performance.

Even when he had to display his strengths like his quarterback passes or set-piece delivery, his execution was subpar. While not the sole or even primary factor in the Three Lions’ tepid display, it’s unlikely that Alexander-Arnold will retain his place in midfield beyond this match.

Ahead of the midfield and Foden, Harry Kane led the line while Bukayo Saka played on the right. Both were intentionally positioned high, pinning the opposition line back. For Saka, this played to his strengths.

Time and time again, he found space between Filip Kostić and Strahinja Pavlović, his cross for the goal a prime example. Kane’s run distracted Miloš Veljković, creating a one-on-one aerial duel for Bellingham, who capitalised on the opportunity to score.

Repeatedly, Saka and Walker produced dangerous cutbacks from the right, narrowly missing connecting with Kane, Foden, or Bellingham in the box on numerous occasions. He appeared to be the only consistent outlet for England, the one player who could convert stale possession into riveting attacking sequences.

The sum of these individual displays was a strange performance from England. Southgate’s strategy, despite an ostensibly attacking setup, leaned towards a measured approach, aiming to manage the game’s intensity.

Once England took the lead, the midfield’s dynamism diminished, leading to reduced attacking pressure. However, they were unable to retain possession for long sequences. Much of that has to be attributed to Serbia, who moved to a higher defensive line towards the end of the first half and successfully used their physicality and numerical advantages in midfield to recover the ball and prevent England from building attacking pressure.

As a consequence of Serbia’s pressing, England had to spend long spells of the second half defending as a block. Their 4-4-2 seemed structurally sound, but apart from Rice, they lacked players with the requisite defensive intensity and duel-winning ability to protect the backline.

The result was a chaotic performance, leading to consistent opportunities for Serbia to feed the ball into the dangerous duo of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic.

Had either striker possessed more pace, Serbia may have been able to make more runs in behind to stretch and truly test the England backline. As it played out, though, Stones and Guehi were more than capable of defending the threat in front of them.

England, then, emerge from this game as something of a quandary. They showed little of the defensive resilience and solidity that has served them well in numerous tournaments under Southgate. Equally, though, they failed to improve upon their generally cautious approach in possession to dominate the game offensively.

Prospects for improvement remain. Luke Shaw’s reintroduction into the side could help provide more width on the left flank, enabling England to stretch teams horizontally and open up space in the channels for their flurry of attacking talent to translate smart movement into chance creation.

Including Adam Wharton or Kobbie Mainoo may also provide England with a more complete option in midfield to better complement Rice and Bellingham. Their opening thirty minutes were promising, and if they can maintain fluid movement between their midfielders while having better spacing in the forward line, England’s attack could rapidly improve.

Yet it is incumbent on Southgate to let the reins loose. It is always his habit to revert to caution at the slightest sign of trouble: to retain stale possession and deeper defending despite possessing a squad of players who are ill-suited to such an insipid approach.

He has a proven record of making sensible tactical adjustments throughout a tournament, and no doubt, is technically capable of providing fans with a more fluid style of football. Whether he will place sufficient trust in his team to win games with such a style remains to be seen.

Read – Southgate says England will benefit from Serbia ‘suffering’

Read More – Kane pleased as England edge Serbia ‘battle’

See Also – Bellingham laser-focused after England win Euro 2024 opener

Tweets of the Week – Scotland take over Euro 2024, proper 9s return

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