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Serbia vs. England Review: Three Lions limp over the line in Gelsenkirchen

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Serbia vs. England: Three Lions limp over the line in Gelsenkirchen

Take a breather, three points are on the board. A Jude Bellingham goal in the 13th minute was enough to see Gareth Southgate's side over the line in an encounter where the Three Lions were forced to sweat, both on the pitch and in the stands.

It's easy to come out of that game with an overriding sense of pessimism despite the Three Lions winning their opening game of the European Championships for just the second time in their history. True, it's hard to deny there are one or two causes for concern that have arisen from that performance but the feeling should not solely be one of doom and gloom.

England came out of the blocks in an assertive, dominant fashion as they camped the Serbians firmly in their own third of the pitch with a patient, possession-based approach. As Southgate's side began to knock on the door, Kyle Walker played a savvy through ball to Bukayo Saka whose deflected cross floated into the path of the onrushing Jude Bellingham who, as he's done all season, finished with aplomb.

England had one or two more encouraging moments as the game wore on but that's about as good as it got for the group favourites who, as they've done so often under Southgate, began to retreat into their shell and invite pressure from the opposition. Serbia huffed and puffed but failed to create any clear-cut openings amidst a few impressive defence performances from members of the England starting XI; most notably Marc Guéhi and Declan Rice.

With a win and a clean sheet, why, then, is the mood largely negative? In short, many of the grievances that England fans have aired towards Southgate's tactical approach and selection choices once again tiredly reared their head. England took the lead and then gradually began to defend deeper and deeper in a bid to cling on to a slender lead. England were struggling to keep hold of the ball and found themselves hoofing the ball up the pitch in a bid to relieve themselves of pressure; instead of introducing one of England's more composed possession-oriented midfielders, Southgate's answer to that glaring problem was to introduce Conor Gallagher, a substitution clearly geared towards shutting up shop at the back rather than regaining control of the game.

Trent Alexander-Arnold started the game in midfield, and Southgate's reluctance to use Alexander-Arnold in his most natural position has been a point of criticism for a while now. In the Liverpool man's recent midfield performances for England, it's felt quite clear his contribution in that role is imperfect at best, and this game only reinforced that view as Alexander-Arnold gave the ball away in dangerous areas on a couple of occasions, all while failing to consistently contribute either creatively or in terms of helping the team control possession.

Phil Foden, the Premier League Player of the Season, delivered yet another disappointing performance in an England shirt, again suggesting Southgate doesn't know how to get the best out of the Manchester City phenom. Foden was played in a free-roaming role from the left, but the lack of support around him combined with his generally poor use of the ball made the left-hand side of England's attack effectively impotent, an issue that was compounded by Southgate's preference for using the right-footed Kieran Trippier at left-back.

It was quite clear by half-time that Alexander-Arnold in midfield and Foden manning the left-hand side of the attack was not working, but it took Southgate until the 70th minute to proactively attempt to address what was such a blatant issue, a decision that has only strengthened the long-held belief that Southgate's in-game management is quite simply not up to scratch.

Negatives aside, there were one or two aspects of England's game worthy of praise, mainly in the shape of individual performances. Jude Bellingham did, by all accounts, comfortably live up to the hype as he embraced the role of the team's protagonist, a tag that has been bestowed upon him by all corners of the footballing world. Bukayo Saka was excellent, as were Declan Rice and the tournament debutant, Marc Guéhi.

England fans can take comfort from the fact that a team does not have to start a tournament well in order to win it. Portugal started Euro 2016 poorly, France were blunt in the group stages of the 2018 World Cup and Argentina were less than convincing during the early stages in Qatar.

Ultimately, a team can grow into a tournament and England are still off to a winning start, a result that some people were doubtful of given England's poor showings in recent friendlies. However, there are clear issues that are going to have to be addressed in fairly bold fashion by Southgate if England are to reach their ceiling as a side. The tools are all there, but the burden lies with the handyman, and it's probably going to take an unprecedented series of decisions from the England manager for that outcome to become a reality.

England take on Denmark on Thursday evening in a game that will reveal a lot about the lessons learnt from Sunday night in Gelsenkirchen. Learning lessons quickly has not exactly been a theme of Southgate's tenure as England boss, it tends to be a slow process. Here's to hoping, though, because a potential Euros trophy depends on it.

Header logoEuropean Championship - Group C

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Last updated 13/07/2024