London (AFP) – England are through to the Euro 2020 knockout stages but Gareth Southgate must find a way to take the handbrake off as he gears up for tougher challenges ahead.
With just two goals in their three group games, England are the lowest-scoring side to ever finish top of a group at a European Championship.
On the plus side, they have looked solid at the back, not conceding a single goal in 270 minutes of football, and topping Group D means they get to play at Wembley in the last 16.
England, already assured of progress, started brightly in their final group game against the Czech Republic on Tuesday, with Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish adding zest to a stodgy attack.
But the second half of the 1-0 win at Wembley was a grind and there was little to grip the crowd of 22,500, who reserved their biggest cheers for news of Croatia’s goals against Scotland in Glasgow.
Raheem Sterling has scored England’s only goals of the tournament so far, with Harry Kane still curiously out of sorts after a fine Premier League season in which he finished top of the scoring and assist charts.
There was a clamour for Aston Villa captain Grealish to start after last week’s disappointing goalless draw with Scotland and Southgate was always likely to make changes for the game against the Czechs.
His hand was forced to some extent, with Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount ruled out of action after coming into contact with Scotland’s Billy Gilmour who tested positive for coronavirus.
The selection of Grealish paid immediate dividends as he provided the cross that led to Sterling’s early goal and man-of-the-match Saka was a constant threat with his driving runs down the right side of the attack.
Kane came close to ending his barren spell but was denied by a fine save from Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik, which left the England captain pounding the pitch in frustration.
Despite his flat performances so far, Southgate appears determined to stick with Kane, who won the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup, as the man to build his attack around.
– ‘More to come’ –
Southgate said there was “more to come” from his side as they gear up for a likely clash against world champions France, holders Portugal or Germany.
England will play the runner-up in Group F, with the final games in that group taking place on Wednesday. Germany face Hungary while Portugal take the French.
“Whoever we play, (will be) really, really tough opposition but we’ve sort of known that for 18 months,” said Southgate.
“The good thing from our point of view is I think we’re still improving, we look difficult to play against. There’s more to come from us.
“We’ve got more match minutes on the pitch for some important players and that squad depth is going to be important because I felt like we’ve run out of steam a little bit in a couple of the games.”
Southgate was full of praise for Grealish and Saka and encouraged by what he witnessed against the Czech Republic.
“We saw some of the interchange of positions of those forward players was really exciting, I thought at the start of the game especially,” he said. “We tired a little bit but we knew that because one or two are a little bit short of fitness.”
England have been tight defensively despite changes of personnel but far tougher challenges lie ahead, with potential opponents next week including Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe.
Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has impressed on the rare occasions he has been called into action.
One huge plus on Tuesday was the return from injury of Manchester United central defender Harry Maguire, who has been a mainstay under Southgate.
Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson played 45 minutes after undergoing groin surgery in February and Borussia Dortmund forward Jadon Sancho had his first run out at the Euros.
Southgate’s England have strength in depth and talent to burn but finding the right mix and giving his young players the licence to play with freedom could be his toughest task.
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