Again, let’s start with the obvious. England only netted twice, making them the lowest-scoring group winners in European Championship history.
Those goals – all two of them – were both scored by Raheem Sterling. Harry Kane is yet to break his duck. Worryingly, he has just two in his last 10 appearances for club and country since rushing back from an ankle injury in April. Whichever way you paint it, it’s not pretty.
And even beyond the headline figures, it is not much better. In terms of shots, only Finland and Hungary had fewer. In terms of non-penalty xG, England finished lower mid-table in a ranking of all 24 teams, below eliminated Poland and Scotland.
It is quite the departure from qualifying, when England scored more goals per game than any other side, hitting four or more in seven of their eight games.
What’s changed? It is at least partly explained by Southgate adopting a more cautious approach than in the past and killing off games once ahead but England have looked short on ideas when chasing a goal against Croatia and Scotland, who played relatively conservatively themselves.
The Czech Republic were far more willing to press and engage higher up the pitch, which created space for England’s attack and suited Kane better, allowing him to drop deep and play the more reserved, facilitating role we have become used to seeing at Tottenham.
At the moment, England seem to be a team that needs space to attack in order to look threatening, rather than one which can probe and penetrate deep-lying defences. In theory, that should be less of a problem as the tournament progresses as they will face stronger and more adventurous opponents.
The concern, though, is that Germany and any other potential opponents have seen how to neuter England’s attack and will make themselves difficult to break down.
Moving the ball up the pitch
A major part of England’s struggles in attack is down to progressing the ball up the pitch.
For all the protection that Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips provide, they are not masters of moving possession into the final third and the penalty box. Phillips is definitely stronger than Rice in this respect, but it is far from the strongest part of his game. Getting Jordan Henderson back up to speed would help.
Full-backs are also vital in taking defensive build-up play and bringing it into the opposition half. England did this well at the World Cup but, whoever plays, Southgate’s full-backs have been more conservative so far at this tournament. Even against Scotland, when there was vacant space on both wings, they were strangely reserved.
Luke Shaw appeared to have more license to get forward early on against the Czech Republic and it greatly improved England’s attacking play. The return of Harry Maguire is also important, with his ability to pass and carry the ball out from the back. Two passes – one over the top, another to create a good chance for Kane – demonstrated his importance.
There are tentative signs of improvement then, but more is needed. According to Opta, England are the slowest team at the tournament when it comes to moving the ball up the pitch, crawling forward at less than a metre per second. England’s rate of 0.7 metres per second against the Czechs was a single-game low for any side across the tournament.
That slow tempo cannot be separated from the deliberately cautious approach that Southgate has employed at times but it also supports the criticism of England being generally sluggish in possession.
Start getting the ball from A to B quicker and the attack should look sharper.
Attacking set pieces
Set plays were England’s greatest asset at the 2018 World Cup.
Nine of their 12 goals that summer came from dead-ball situations. They were riding the “love train”, a routine that involved a vertical line of between four and six players bunching up inside the penalty area, then running off in unpredictable directions.
One of Southgate’s favourite goals scored during his time in charge is John Stones’s opener against Panama in Russia, which was a training ground move that the players decided to try in a game for the first time. It was the type of innovative play that we came to associate England with that summer – the type we’ve seen little of so far.
There have been some. Kieran Trippier’s quick throw-in to start a move that ended with Phil Foden hitting the post against Croatia was clearly choreographed. Otherwise, it has been slim pickings.
“There was the one where Stones hit the post [against Scotland] which was bang on the money and Trippier’s delivery in the first game was excellent,” Southgate has admitted. “We haven’t matched that since. It’s an area we can improve upon.”
Trippier feels key. Virtually ever-present at the last World Cup, he has started just one of the three games so far and the dead-ball deliveries of Shaw, Phillips and Mason Mount have not quite had the same impact. But then, it is also a matter of winning corners when Trippier is on the pitch. England had only one against Croatia.
Alan Russell, England’s attacking coach, was the man credited with the work on set plays in Russia but he is no longer part of Southgate’s staff. His departure only weeks before the tournament may also be a factor in the drop-off.
Fortunately, Southgate and his remaining backroom staff recognise the value of set plays at international tournaments, and know England could be doing better with them.