A 1-1 draw with Ukraine in what England manager Gareth Southgate described as a “unique” atmosphere will not overly concern him, but a first blip in European Championship qualifying raised familiar questions ahead of Tuesday’s friendly with Scotland.
Pressing among them is how Southgate can coax the best from his array of creative talent, after James Maddison and Jude Bellingham failed to replicate their early-season club performances in hesitant displays in Poland.
Maddison and Bellingham went into the international break as England’s form players after eye-catching starts at Tottenham and Real Madrid, respectively, but they were hooked in tandem shortly after the hour in Wroclaw, Poland, with Southgate’s side still searching for a winner.
Maddison, making his first competitive England start, was handed the free role from the left flank ahead of Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford, but was visibly more constrained than at club level, where Ange Postecoglou is using him as Spurs’s left-sided No8.
Bellingham, meanwhile, lined up as the most advanced of the midfield three, albeit with more defensive responsibilities than at Real, and was sloppy on the night.
“James in training was absolutely outstanding, so we were looking at him off the wide role,” said Southgate. “Jude has obviously been playing in that high 10 [for Real], but it was very congested in there, very difficult for all of them to find space.”
He added: “It was an incredible atmosphere, unique really in my 20-plus years in the game. I’ve not experienced anything like it.”
As Southgate acknowledged, the problem for both Maddison and Bellingham was finding the freedom to produce the progressive passing which England needed against a fired-up Ukraine, playing in front of a noisy and partisan crowd.
Serhiy Rebrov’s team deserve credit for containing England, but the visitors’ space problem was also of their own making.
As usual, Harry Kane dropped deep in search of the ball and influence, and it was from one of the captain’s forays to midfield that England found their equaliser towards the end of the first half, Kyle Walker running onto Kane’s magnificent pass for a first international goal, cancelling out Oleksandr Zinchenko’s cool finish.
With Kane playing as a hybrid No9-No10, there was a sense that England had too many players trying to do the same thing, and it feels no coincidence that Southgate’s side have normally been most balanced with two direct wingers, namely Bukayo Saka, Rashford or Raheem Sterling, flanking the centre-forward.
Southgate has previously found it hard enough to get Foden and Jack Grealish into the team, so the emergence of Maddison as another hard-to-ignore creative option leaves the England manager with a familiar headache in the build up to next summer’s Euros.
Like Maddison, Foden has been used as a midfielder by Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola to great effect already this season, and there will likely be growing clamour for Southgate to experiment with the pair in midfield, particularly given the questions around Jordan Henderson.
Replacing Henderson with Maddison or Foden would get another exciting attacking player on the pitch and should ensure they are operating in different areas to Kane, who is capable of being both a creator and goalscorer. Pushed on the chances of Foden playing deeper for England, Southgate was non-committal.
“We know exactly what Phil can do and every game is slightly different,” he said. “In the last few games, City have been using him from wider and had [Julian] Alvarez with [Erling] Haaland [centrally]. For us, it is great to have those options.”
Henderson kept his place on Saturday in spite of his controversial switch to Saudi Arabia but offers none of the ingenuity or goal threat of Maddison and Foden, and is not only playing at a massively reduced level aged 33 but is threatening to become an unhelpful distraction.
Henderson offers none of the ingenuity or goal threat of Maddison and Foden, and is threatening to become an unhelpful distraction
Harry Maguire, too, felt fortunate to have kept his place in the squad and by midway through the first half had surpassed the number of minutes he has played for Manchester United this season.
The 30-year-old was understandably rusty and is under increasing pressure from Marc Guehi, who impressed playing alongside him on Saturday, Levi Colwill, Lewis Dunk and Fikayo Tomori.
Southgate has been admirably loyal to senior players who have performed in the past — and Walker’s outstanding display underlined the benefits of this approach — but expectations have changed and another question for the manager is whether his faith in Henderson and Maguire is increasingly misplaced.
Southgate will reason that Tuesday’s friendly in Glasgow is a better opportunity to experiment, and an evolution in midfield and at centre-back would be especially promising.