England have some huge decisions to make with just five games to go until the World Cup 


While an abject defeat at the Puskas Arena threw up more questions than answers for Gareth Southgate, one thing did become crystal clear; England have work to do. 

A 22-game unbeaten run (so long as you ignore the penalty shoot-out defeat in the Euro 2020 final) came to a shuddering halt in Hungary as the Three Lions limped to a 1-0 defeat in their Nations League opener. 

In truth, it is not the first alarming result in the sequence of fixtures. A lack of precision and incision up top has been highlighted in draws at Wembley against Scotland and Hungary. A 1-1 draw in Poland also took its place in the near-miss category. 

Gareth Southgate has plenty of questions left to answer ahead of the World Cup in November

The run had been punctuated by resounding victories against non-opponents, with the likes of San Marino, Andorra and Albania all battered within the last 12 months. 

But while some see the Nations League as an aggravation, its tendency throw up opponents of a similar calibre is a far more useful barometer for progress than banging in a bucketload against nations that couldn’t even fill Wembley with their own populations.

And on England’s recent showings, there are areas needing addressing if a tilt at the World Cup in November can be considered genuine. 

First and foremost on the agenda, would be settling on a formation that allows for both defensive stability and an attacking threat. 

Since the 2018 World Cup, Southgate has used 3-4-3 as his go-to, especially against fiercer opponents. It has allowed for more stability at the back, with John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker his preferred triumvirate at the back. 

It has been a formation that has produced some memorable moments – it was in place for the run to the semis in Russia, and for the stunning 2-0 win over Germany at last summer’s Euros. 

England will enter the World Cup as one of the favourites, and will want to live up to the tag

England will enter the World Cup as one of the favourites, and will want to live up to the tag

However, all too often, the formation has the effect of stifling creativity at the other end. It was evident once more on Saturday, as England failed to muster any real threat. It was evident after the second minute, too, against Italy at Wembley last July. 

There has been an alternative often deployed in qualifying clashes, a 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1, which allows for more forwards on the field, at the expense of shoring up at the back. 

Changing formation comes down to how much faith Southgate has in his backline. His three at the back is deployed as something of a safety net, with out-and-out centre backs Maguire and Stones covered by the pace of Walker should anything go awry. 

Trent Alexander-Arnold was pushed further forward against Hungary on Saturday

Trent Alexander-Arnold was pushed further forward against Hungary on Saturday

Whether leaving Maguire in a simple pairing at the back is wise – especially given the season he has just endured – is certainly something that will be troubling the Three Lions boss. 

The other option would be to replace Maguire, pairing either Tyrone Mings or Conor Coady alongside Stones, but neither have the extended exposure to the top level competition that would bring reassurance. Maguire can at least point to Champions League experience. 

Central defence is not the only issue at the back either, with the question of what to do with Trent Alexander-Arnold another that has troubled the England boss.

His attacking traits are undeniable, his delivery from wide bettered by few in the global game, and technically, being forced to play him in a higher role may be of benefit, especially when he can be covered by another natural full-back in Walker.

However, given a more advanced role against Hungary, the Liverpool forward once again failed to shine, though off the back of his gruelling season with the Reds, it was perhaps a case of one game too far. Reds team-mate Andy Robertson looked similarly lacklustre despite the stakes when playing for Scotland against Ukraine last Wednesday. 

Further up the pitch, there is another conundrum for Southgate in the form of Jude Bellingham.

It is worth constantly reminding ourselves that the Borussia Dortmund midfielder is still just 18, his ability far outstripping his years. 

In the Bundesliga, it is his attacking threat that makes him one of the focal points of his side, 20 goal involvements across all competitions last season – 14 of them assists. 

Jude Bellingham is one of England's brightest sparks but it is unclear where he fits in

Jude Bellingham is one of England’s brightest sparks but it is unclear where he fits in 

Declan Rice is a class operator in the middle of the park but needs an effective partner

Declan Rice is a class operator in the middle of the park but needs an effective partner 

In the 3-4-3 system though, his attacking edge was blunted by the need to sit and track back to help Declan Rice in the middle. Arguably, sitting in front of him and Kalvin Phillips – as he did in the final 12 minutes – would see the best of him.

That of course would see England reverting to two at the back and then three in the middle. You can see the issue Southgate has, then. To stick, or to twist?

And that is where the England head coach must earn his corn. Yes, he took the bold decision to switch things up, but that wasn’t until the 78th minute.

By then, England’s flagging side looked devoid of ambition and the switch simply failed to prompt the change in attitude it could have some minutes earlier. 

Beforehand there had been changes, but they had been like for like, and given the performance it was clear that the system was not working in breaking down the Hungarians. 

There were other, hungrier options on the bench, too. Players with a point to prove, whose place in the squad for November is far from assured. Conor Gallagher and Tammy Abraham had proven the difference many times for Crystal Palace and Roma respectively in the past 10 months. They will be hoping to be handed their shot in the coming days.  

Southgate came in for some criticism for his conservative substitutions on Saturday

Southgate came in for some criticism for his conservative substitutions on Saturday

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