The planning phase is almost complete.
At Qatar’s Khalifa International Stadium, England will play its following match versus Iran. Even though it seems like a lifetime has passed since the Nations League matches in September, England only receives these warm-ups. Gareth Southgate’s team has not had a successful campaign, but it has at least been a learning experience, and England will leave it knowing more about their lineup for the match against Iran than they did last week. At least that plus the fact that England preserved their lone great performance from this dreadful campaign for their final game—a 3-3 draw against Germany on Monday night—are positives.
The ability to create opportunities was maybe the biggest difference between this game and Friday’s 1-0 loss to Italy in Milan, or even between this game and any previous Nations League matchup England has played in this group. We are all aware of how ineffective England has been during this match at producing anything from open play. Only one goal—a Harry Kane penalty—was scored during their four games in June, and the rest of the time they did not exactly barrage the opposing goal. They appeared equally helpless on Friday, failing to register a shot on goal until Kane forced two successive stops from Gianluigi Donnarumma with just 14 minutes remaining.
For the past five years, Southgate has operated under the assumption that if an offense is run through Kane and Raheem Sterling, they will be effective enough to compensate for a lack of assistance from other players. This notion appeared to have peaked for the majority of 2022. It appeared to be working again on Monday.
In the first, half at Wembley, England struggled and gave Germany too much time with the ball. However, when they countered and broke through Germany’s press, they were able to create great opportunities. When Sterling came through on goal three times in the first half, he mishandled the ball once after racing in behind and forcing superb saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen twice.
Since the Euros last year, he has only scored twice at this level, and when the World Cup kicks off, there will undoubtedly be concerns about his position in the team. Sterling nevertheless served as a reminder of what he can bring to this club that no one else can, even though he didn’t score in this particular game.
Jude Bellingham, however, was possibly the biggest winner for England that evening. Although his performance in Milan had some encouraging moments, this was the first time we saw a strong 90 minutes from him in a tough international match. Bellingham’s ability to recover the ball, locate an opponent, and advance with it guaranteed that England kept moving forward in the second half despite frequently being outnumbered in the center. His dashes into the box were difficult for Germany to stop, and Nico Schlotterbeck’s foul on him resulted in the penalty that almost gave England the victory.
Southgate praised Bellingham’s “top-level mindset” and the aura of unbeatability he exuded, even after England fell behind 2-0 in the second half. Jordan Henderson returning to the lineup to start in Qatar was just about a possibility before this past weekend, but after these two games, Bellingham now feels like the man in control with Declan Rice.
In comparison to before the weekend, other positions are now a little bit apparent. Since being caught at Brentford on August 13 with Manchester United behind 4-0, Luke Shaw has not appeared for Manchester United in the Premier League. However, he demonstrated on Monday the advantage of using a specialist at left wing-back rather than Bukayo Saka, who played there for Milan, who was playing out of position. The only player who can naturally give width down that side is Shaw. Shaw appears to be the most likely left wing-back until Ben Chilwell’s circumstances at Chelsea under Graham Potter drastically change.
Mason Mount and Saka both entered the game, and they worked together to score England’s equalizer (Saka’s run, Mount’s finish), demonstrating their ability to add some extra quality and vigor in the final third. Both are most likely vying for Phil Foden’s spot, which is now on the right of the front three, under this setup. However, Mount and Saka are equally qualified to launch an offensive against Iran in November.
There is no getting around the truth that Harry Maguire’s position will continue to cause Southgate the most trouble in Qatar. Although Southgate has continued to believe in him, he no longer plays for Manchester United. He also looked weak in Milan and even awful against Germany. Maguire conceded the penalty that led to Germany’s opening goal then lost control of the ball to allow them to score on the break. Maguire would undoubtedly lose his position if candidates that are more qualified were available. However, they are not and Southgate chose not to use Marc Guehi or Fikayo Tomori in either of the last week’s games.
The fact that we now have a break for another six weeks of club football before the tournament takes place makes these two games different from usual warm-ups. Between now and the first games, there is plenty of time for ups and downs in fitness and form. But after these games, we at least have a clearer image, a feeling of the favorites and underdogs, to aid in our ability to envisage what will happen on November 21.