Pressure on Gareth Southgate to make changes after painfully familiar struggles from ragged England

Gareth Southgate’s side were second-best for much of the match against Denmark (REUTERS)
Gareth Southgate’s side were second-best for much of the match against Denmark (REUTERS)

Gareth Southgate was never likely to abandon his experiment with Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield after one game, particularly a win, but how about two?

Does the manager now have a big enough sample size to rethink after an alarmingly loose England performance in a 1-1 with Denmark here in Frankfurt?

In a ragged and all-too-familiar display, Southgate’s side were out-passed by Denmark, who deservedly fought back from Harry Kane’s 64th goal in an England shirt to equalise through Morten Hjulmand’s screamer before the interval.

Hjulmand’s strike – reminiscent of Aurelien Tchouameni’s opening goal in England’s World Cup quarter-final defeat 18 months ago – was another long-range stunner at these finals but symptomatic of the swathes of space Southgate’s side allowed Denmark in their own half.

In more of a 4-2-3-1 system than the 4-3-3 against Serbia, Alexander-Arnold and Declan Rice were disastrously deep, effectively sitting in front of the centre-halves.

Alexander-Arnold lasted 53 minutes before being replaced by Conor Gallagher for the second game running, with England marginally more competitive in an end-to-end second half, in which Phil Foden went closest to a winner with a low strike off the post.

Denmark still had more territory and chances, however, and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg went close with a curling strike, as England relied on some last-gasp defending.

The Trent Alexander-Arnold experiment has not worked for England (Getty Images)
The Trent Alexander-Arnold experiment has not worked for England (Getty Images)

As Alexander-Arnold trudged off the pitch, you wonder if he knows as well as anyone that Southgate’s great experiment at these finals is not working.

Though England mostly defended their box well in the 45 minutes, there was next to no pressure on the ball when Denmark progressed forward and holes for Christian Eriksen, the impressive Hojbjerg and Hjulmand to exploit.

Denmark’s midfield is technically-sound but hardly world-beating – Hojbjerg and Eriksen struggled to get on the pitch for Tottenham and Manchester United, respectively, last season – and watching England flounder it was easy to wonder how this team would far against Toni Kroos’ Germany or a Spain side built around Rodri and Pedri.

It was just so painfully similar to practically every England game against a major nation for…well, the last two decades or so.

Gallagher put himself about characteristically and made a crucial intervention to nip the ball from Eriksen’s toes in the box. The Chelsea midfielder, though, has flaws of his own, including a tendency to be careless in possession, and it is odd that Southgate picked Crystal Palace’s Adam Wharton, a player who loves to take care of the ball, if he is not going to use him in Germany.

Southgate believes Alexander-Arnold can unlock packed defences with his brilliant range of passing and there were glimpses of what he can offer offensively.

His last contribution before being replaced was a raking ball over Denmark’s defence towards Bukayo Saka, which the Arsenal winger did well to head into the side-netting.

These moments of class from Alexander-Arnold on the ball do not compensate for his struggles without it, particularly as he could just as easily play spectacular passes from right-back.

England were sloppy on the ball and had no control in midfield (Adam Davy/PA Wire)
England were sloppy on the ball and had no control in midfield (Adam Davy/PA Wire)

England lacked control and defensive solidity in the middle of the park, and better sides than Denmark will ruthlessly exploit such weaknesses in the knockouts.

Four points from their opening two games means England have effectively booked their place in the last-16 at Euro 2024 but there is still the group to be won, which will likely leave Southgate reluctant to make wholesale changes for Tuesday’s meeting with Slovenia in Cologne.

He must, though, surely consider a new partner for Rice in midfield, with Manchester United’s Kobbie Mainoo the other option available.

There is no perfect solution and limited time to bed-in a new player and system. Suddenly, there is a case that gambling on Alexander-Arnold working in midfield at a major tournament was foolhardy, a risky vanity project that has now backfired.

If there was a positive for Southgate, it was in the display of Foden, who was far more involved than against Serbia, popping in pockets outside the box and looking dangerous.

He showed a glimpse of his Manchester City form by turning away from an opponent early on and bursting into the box, only to slice a shot wide, and his effort of the post was nearly a narrative-shifting moment at these Euros.

Southgate – who replaced Foden, Saka and Kane with Eberechi Eze, Jarrod Bowen and Ollie Watkins with 20 minutes to play, largely without effect – will also take heart in the result itself, which leaves England unbeaten and definitively preparing for another week in Germany.

There is still time to grow into these finals and, at this stage, perhaps Southgate is right that the scrutiny on certain payers and performances is overblown.

That said, the manager is now under pressure to recalibrate his midfield, and ensure this game goes down as a forgettable off-day, akin to the draws with Scotland and the USA in the second game of the last two major tournaments.