LONDON — Iceland offered such little resistance at Wembley that Gareth Southgate could learn little about his England players beyond proving his pre-match assertion this group want to play for their country no matter the circumstances. The Three Lions ran out easy 4-0 winners to sign off for the calendar year, embracing the opportunity to express themselves with nothing to play for after missing out on qualification for the UEFA Nations League finals by losing in Belgium last Sunday.
Southgate now has a four-month hiatus before England’s next match and plenty to consider ahead of next summer’s delayed Euro 2020. Here are the areas the 50-year-old must clarify before England attempt to end a 55-year wait for a major international trophy.
Southgate has faced persistent questions as to whether England are sufficiently dangerous in his preferred 3-4-3 system and so he will have welcomed their potency against Iceland.
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Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish were the standout performers as the home side took control of the game early on, pinning Iceland back to the edge of their own box for long periods. Iceland were already relegated from Group A2, fielded a weakened team in boss Erik Hamren’s final game in charge and played the final 36 minutes with ten men, but it was nevertheless encouraging to see that trio combine so efficiently throughout. Bukayo Saka and Kieran Trippier helped England stretch Iceland across the pitch, and a notable benefit of this system was seeing Harry Maguire maraud forward as an overlapping centre-back down the left.
Supporters of a return to 4-3-3 will not be silenced by this but Southgate’s conviction in this current system will be strengthened by just how much they dominated here.
It’s been little more than a year since a debate raged over whether Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Jadon Sancho were the best front three in world football. Had Euro 2020 taken place when originally scheduled, the only uncertainty would have been whether Marcus Rashford would replace Sancho given his continued rise at Manchester United, but now the conversation is markedly different.
Southgate may have changed formations but England still play with three ostensibly attack-minded players, albeit ones out wide with a different profile to the pace and power of Rashford and Sancho.
Grealish and Mount lacked the pace to support Kane when England tried to break against Belgium and were more threatening as Southgate’s side controlled possession. And so it proved again here, with Foden and Grealish’s guile the right tool to unlock a notoriously disciplined and organised defence. Foden capped a performance that should go a long way to repairing the damage done by his indiscretion in the reverse fixture in Iceland with two superbly taken goals, the second a fine long-range strike five minutes from time.
There is an exciting variety of options at Southgate’s disposal, which should give England the ability to tailor their approach to specific challenges, but that in turn heightens pressure on the manager to get it right when it matters most.
Only an injury would deny Kane a place in Southgate’s preferred starting lineup, but it will irritate the Tottenham Hotspur striker that he has now gone six games without a goal, failing to score for his country in an admittedly truncated 2020 schedule.
England were hardly tested in their 4-0 Nations League rout of Iceland on Wednesday. NEIL HALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Southgate named a stronger lineup than many anticipated given the low stakes. In fact, the inclusion of Kane, Grealish, Mount and Eric Dier among others could be interpreted as the England manager making a point to all Premier League clubs that he will not be dictated to regarding team selection, either surreptitiously or otherwise. He claimed that certain players were under pressure not to play international football to minimise the risk of injuries, and starting so many key players here felt like a message to certain individuals, most obviously Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho, who has previously voiced his concern over Kane’s treatment.
He is likely to have taken a dim view of Kane staying on for 76 minutes here, as could Aston Villa manager Dean Smith given Grealish played a part in all three England matches this month, one of only three players to do so. Southgate has called for the game’s stakeholders to think collectively about the welfare of players — the return of five substitutes in the Premier League is a popular notion all around — but he will have to collaborate with his club counterparts in the coming months to guard against burnout when the finals come around.
England worked hard to ensure their players peaked physically in Russia two years ago after arriving at a series of tournaments managing widespread fatigue. This season’s condensed schedule will only heighten those concerns.
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Declan Rice got England up and running with his first international goal after 20 minutes, inadvertently using his shoulder to glance in Foden’s free kick, but was arguably more important in helping support Mount to recycle the ball quickly and efficiently in central areas.
One of England’s longstanding weaknesses is the absence of a midfield metronome, a playmaker capable of making England tick under pressure in the mould of Croatia’s Luka Modric or the Netherlands’ Frenkie De Jong. Rice is not that player, but his combination with Mount enabled England to maintain a stranglehold on the game. Against better opponents, Southgate has opted for Jordan Henderson to provide more defensive protection, and with Harry Winks making another encouraging contribution, there are several players competing to offer the right balance. Central midfield remains arguably England’s biggest uncertainty in the months ahead.
Jordan Pickford went into this international break facing mounting calls to be replaced, but Southgate continues to stand by the Everton goalkeeper. He was never tested here — Iceland failed to muster a single shot on target all night — but he was not at fault for either goal in Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Belgium and retains the No. 1 jersey heading into the New Year.
Nick Pope and Dean Henderson both kept clean sheets from the half each they played against Ireland last week, and the former in particular looks to be Pickford’s closest challenger. The Toffees’ No. 1 will need to improve his displays at club level in the second half of the season to keep Pope at arm’s length.