By the time England‘s penultimate Uefa Nations League match – and more importantly penultimate game of any description before the World Cup – gets underway in Milan, Gareth Southgate will have had 102 days to stew over their last result: a 4-0 home defeat to Hungary.
The high points have overwhelmingly outnumbered the lows during Southgate’s six-year tenure as Three Lions boss but there is no doubt that that dismal night in Wolverhampton represented the nadir of his time in charge. Hungary, a competent side but not a patch on the “Magical Magyars” of the 1950s, condemned England to their worst home defeat in 96 years.
Results that shocking invariably provoke an inquest and Southgate requires a much-improved performance and ideally result against Italy to keep the increasing number of skeptics at bay. England’s winless run extends to four matches; not since June 2014 when Roy Hodgson’s squad meekly exited the World Cup group stage have they gone five without one.
Despite England’s iffy form, Southgate has resisted making sweeping changes and instead retained the core of the squad that reached the European Championship final last summer. Southgate’s loyalty is being tested, however, with a number of his regular starters either out-of-form or out of the picture with their clubs.
The biggest puzzle that Southgate must solve pre-Qatar is in defence. Euro 2020 final starters Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw have played a combined 10 minutes of Premier League football since Manchester United were blitzed 4-0 by Brentford on 13 August, while Ben Chilwell has started only one of Chelsea’s first six league games, albeit after returning from a serious knee injury.
How to watch Italy vs England
- Date: Friday 23 September
- Venue: San Siro, Milan
- Kick-off: 7.45pm
- TV channel: Channel 4, coverage begins at 7pm
- Live stream: 4oD
Channel 4 presenter Jules Breach will be joined pitchside by former Juventus and Italy star Alessandro Del Piero.
Maguire’s lack of game time allied to Ben White and Tyrone Mings’ omissions could boost Eric Dier’s prospects with the Spurs defender enjoying a solid start to the campaign. Dier credited Antonio Conte for improving him “tactically, physically and mentally” after earning a long-awaited recall to the national side and could benefit from playing in a back three for his club, should Southgate decide to employ a similar system in Qatar.
The Kalvin Phillips-Declan Rice midfield axis that served England so well last summer is also in danger of disintegration with the former struggling for minutes at Manchester City and now sidelined due to a recurring shoulder injury. Borussia Dortmund’s precocious teenager Jude Bellingham is the people’s choice to partner Rice in England’s engine room, but Southgate may lean on Jordan Henderson’s experience instead.
Mason Mount is another Southgate favourite lacking form, as evidenced by a return of no goals and no assists in six league games so far and he could face renewed competition for his starting spot from Manchester City pair Phil Foden and Jack Grealish. Reassuringly for Southgate, there are no such issues facing his captain and MVP Harry Kane, who has scored six league goals already, smashing the suspicion that he is a slow starter in the process.
While the matches against Italy and Germany will help shape Southgate’s starting line-up for the World Cup opener against Iran on 21 November, Brentford striker Ivan Toney will expect to be given a runout at some stage after being called up to the squad for the first time. Toney and Roma’s Tammy Abraham are vying to be Kane’s support act at the tournament.
England’s opponents Italy, meanwhile, have an experimental look to their squad as Roberto Mancini looks to mould together a squad for Euro 2024 after missing out on a place at the World Cup.
A dozen of the Azzurri’s players have fewer than five caps, including the teenage forward Wilfried Gnonto who joined Leeds from FC Zurich on transfer deadline day.
Opinion: England’s ‘One Love’ armband in Qatar risks being an empty gesture
By Daniel Storey, i‘s Chief Football Writer
For all that the OneLove armband is something – a gesture, a meaningful display of unity, a shared intent for a better world, a call-to-arms, an advertising slogan – there is something that it categorically isn’t: a rainbow.
At first glance it may look a little like the flag first used as a marker of LGBT+ allyship in San Francisco in the 1970s and later spread across the world like love itself, but don’t be fooled. Only the red on Harry Kane’s arm will be the same hue; the lines of colour spread diagonally.
There’s probably a good reason for that. In April, Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari, the security chief for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, explained that rainbow flags could be taken from supporters for fear they would be attacked.
As if the flags were all red and being waved in the faces of bulls rather than simply protesting against abhorrent mistreatment of the gay community in a country where male homosexuality is illegal.
“Please, no need to really raise that flag at this point,” was Al Ansari’s message, rather missing the point that displaying allyship is at its most powerful when the aggressors least want to see the display.
So for all the good intentions, the armband sidesteps the one universally accepted symbol of LGBT+ unity. It will be worn for a full season by England’s captain rather than just for the World Cup, but surely longevity would be superseded by immediate impact?
Analysis: Pope has improved his major weakness and can rival Pickford for No 1 spot
By Mark Douglas, i‘s northern football correspondent
Could there be a puff of white smoke for England’s Pope when the Three Lions head to Italy this week?
Gareth Southgate isn’t exactly short of equations to solve when England resume competitive action this week after a quartet of desperate Nations League displays last summer left some prodding the panic button. But a goalkeeper dilemma has emerged with Jordan Pickford missing with a thigh injury.
The official prognosis on Pickford is a further two or three weeks on the sidelines but Southgate needs an insurance policy – and there is not much to separate the three in-form goalkeepers named in England’s latest squad.
All of the candidates can construct a case to play at the San Siro. Back as a top flight No 1, Dean Henderson is one of the few of Nottingham Forest’s cast of newcomers to emerge from their rocky start to life in the top flight with any credit.
Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale is the undisputed No 1 for the Premier League leaders, and has the backing of club manager Mikel Arteta to unseat Pickford himself in time for England’s opener in November.
Pope, though, has arguably turned in the most complete set of performances of any of England’s goalkeepers outside Pickford. Since moving from Burnley in the summer, he has exceeded expectations on Tyneside.
“He’s shown already for us this year how good he can be,” Eddie Howe said of his £11m close season signing, who usurped Martin Dubravka at St James’ Park.
“He has kept goal so well – his distribution, his crosses, his shot stopping have been of the highest level. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”
Pope knew that among England’s management the biggest question mark surrounded his ability to perform the sweeper-keeper role in the way Pickford has. He welcomed the chance to answer those critics after leaving Burnley in the summer, reasoning that Howe’s style of play would allow him to spend less time launching long balls.
During a long, intense pre-season at Newcastle, most of the work Pope did was on how he would help the team to play out from the back. It appears to be paying off – last season his average pass length was 52.8 yards. This year it is 42.2 yards and his accuracy is up too.