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EPL TALK: Brazil defeat shows that England have too many problems to be Euro 2024 favourites

With three months to go before the tournament, Gareth Southgate has more questions than answers amid his weary squad

England midfielder Declan Rice during the international friendly match against Brazil at Wembley Stadium.
England midfielder Declan Rice during the international friendly match against Brazil at Wembley Stadium. (PHOTO: Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images)

IN SOME corner of a football field, there is forever an England problem. That’s paraphrasing one of the great World War I poets, but the dodgy hyperbole is usually relevant when it comes to any rational analysis of the Three Lions.

As always, they’re either winning the upcoming tournament or they’re a bit of a mess. The pendulum of blinkered hysteria can swing violently from one to the other in a matter of days, or in this case, a matter of minutes: 10 to be precise. That was the difference between Gareth Southgate’s middling men pinching a lucky draw against Brazil or kickstarting a slight crisis of confidence.

Not surprisingly, they went for the latter. This is England, after all. In the 80th minute, the teen prodigy, Endrick, knocked in the winner. He’s joining Real Madrid in the summer. He could’ve joined Chelsea. But the Blues’ owner Todd Boehly, that great talent scout, didn’t want to spoil the market. This is the English Premier League, after all.

But Endrick’s dramatic emergence has triggered the inevitable commentaries about Brazil’s endless, poverty-fuelled production lines and a little existential hand-wringing about the Three Lions’ failure to produce these overnight, teenage sensations. They do. He’s called Kobbie Mainoo. But there’s more chance of Harry Maguire signing for Real Madrid than there is of Mainoo starting for England at Euro 2024.

The confident, swaggering midfielder from Manchester United represents just one of the problems that Southgate faces in the coming weeks, or at least his position does. Who stars alongside Declan Rice? How many players are suddenly required to plug the gaps that were unexpectedly exposed by a transitional Brazilian side?

Brazil have always played the bogeymen to England’s dithering damsels – the Three Lions’ record against the Selecao is their worst – but it was still surprising to see how easily the hosts’ inherent shortcomings were exploited at Wembley.

Dispensing with the usual caveats – it’s just a friendly, it’s March, key players always find a mystical injury in March and so forth – Southgate still seeks answers for too many questions.

So let’s start with that mystery man alongside Rice. Conor Gallagher started because Conor Gallagher is a midfielder built in his manager’s preferred image: safe, dependable and relatively risk-free going forward.

But he wasn’t particularly effective going back either. Gallagher’s erratic distribution was an example of just why Julian Nagelsmann convinced Toni Kroos to put a Germany shirt back on. Quarterbacks can define edgy contests at this level and Kroos tore the French apart from his sitting position on Sunday morning. If only England had an elegant footballer with a similar eye for a pass, but Trent Alexander-Arnold leaves too many gaps, apparently.

But so did Gallagher. Brazil’s midfield passed around him, which prevented Rice from pressing with the freedom that he enjoys at Arsenal. Mainoo was a marginal improvement when he came on with 15 minutes to go. His introduction earned the biggest cheer of the night at Wembley. He’s clearly a joyous, infectious presence, for club and country. The kid was calmer and more assured in his late cameo, the actual safer choice for England in many ways. But who thinks the 18-year-old will get the nod for Euro 2024? Anyone?

England manager Gareth Southgate during the international friendly against Brazil at Wembley Stadium.
England manager Gareth Southgate during the international friendly against Brazil at Wembley Stadium. (PHOTO: MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Familiar doubts resurface in Wembley defeat

Southgate has been averse to such selection risks even though he continues to take the biggest of all in central defence. As expected, Maguire offered his opponents their customary gift, when he turned like a toddler on a bouncy castle and slipped his back pass to Rodrygo. The chance was squandered, but Southgate’s loyalty to his defender is either endearing or exasperating, depending on your allegiance.

John Stones is obviously Southgate’s first pick in central defence, even though he’s often Pep Guardiola’s first pick in Manchester City’s central midfield, the role that currently has an England vacancy. And Maguire remains Southgate’s second pick in central defence, even though he’s not always Erik ten Hag’s first pick in Manchester United’s central defence. Confused?

England’s defensive pairing certainly were against Brazil. At times, it felt like Maguire had been sent to defensive purgatory for unknown misdeeds, to be tortured indefinitely by smaller, faster footballers in a macabre public spectacle. And yet, unlike Mainoo, Maguire will almost certainly start at Euro 2024.

Luckily, England’s full-back positions are watertight, right? Or they were until Kyle Walker limped off with a muscle injury after the 33-year-old toiled at right-back and Ben Chilwell’s inclusion only really suggested that Luke Shaw’s absence will be keenly felt. The back four looks brittle. Southgate’s safety net has picked the wrong moment to display signs of wear and tear.

The giddy emphasis on England’s attacking quartet – or quintet if the striker is included – has perhaps led to a Hollywoodization of the Three Lions’ narrative, where only the surnames are required to ensure big box office returns in the summer: Rice, Saka, Bellingham, Foden and Kane. Who could top those A-listers? Southgate has a marvellous football universe to play with. And he still might. Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane were sorely missed and Jude Bellingham tried to dictate proceedings against Brazil.

But he didn’t. Or maybe he couldn’t. A generous interpretation might be that Bellingham was playing alongside debutant Anthony Gordon, who was decent. A less kind evaluation might be that Bellingham can’t replicate his Real Madrid form any more than Phil Foden can dominate defenders like he does at the Etihad. England simply do not play that way.

And when the Three Lions’ defence is weakened, Southgate’s innate caution is typically challenged by half-decent opponents. A lacklustre England were not going to beat Brazil, any more than they were going to prevail in those tense, decisive contests at Russia 2018, England 2021 and Qatar 2022; the kind of contests often settled by smooth operators like Mainoo, Alexander-Arnold or a liberated Foden. We’ve been here before. We’ll inevitably revisit the issue again at Germany 2024.

And if Southgate offers the same solutions at the Euros, it’ll be hard to picture anything other than the same, dispiriting experience.

If Southgate offers the same solutions at the Euros, it’ll be hard to picture anything other than the same, dispiriting experience.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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