The England express has temporarily been derailed at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after the Three Lions labored to a 0-0 draw against the United States at Al Bayt Stadium, once again calling into question manager Gareth Southgate in terms of selection decisions and tactical preferences.
Southgate made no changes on paper from the side that ran out 6-2 winners against Iran to open play in Group B four days ago, but this was an England that most assuredly relied on the handbrake far more than they did against the top-ranked Asian outfit in the tournament in a display that was more in-line with frustrating performances that saw England recently relegated from Nations League A.
England has the lion’s share of possession on the night (55%) but managed to carve out fewer chances than a motivated and lively young US side under Gregg Berhalter who expertly stifled the midfield duopoly of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, while keeping Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka, and Harry Kane off the scoresheet and relatively shackled throughout.
Mount came under heavy criticism on social media both during and in the aftermath of the result, with many questioning why Phil Foden has yet to be unleashed on the tournament field in Qatar, but further confusion when it came to Southgate’s substitutions can be levied in the direction of why the England manager persisted with Kieran Trippier at right-back when the nation was crying out - once again - for a creative spark while leaving Liverpool star Trent Alexander-Arnold rooted to his seat on the bench.
There is scope to support Southgate in why he will not start the star Reds right-back in his preferred XI given questions surrounding his ability on the defensive side on the ball and how he regularly can be called to account for being easily beaten off the dribble or caught out of position. This is not a call for TAA to start for England, but rather, criticism of Southgate for making risk-averse substitute decisions that will not help England push for a result when they need something different than what they are already producing on the pitch.
When you are struggling to create key chances and make your opponent feel uncomfortable in defense, something more is needed. Alexander-Arnold’s ability to be a wide creator from both in the final third as well as from deeper areas, as well as his penchant for an inverted run that can create space for others, is one of the key ingredients England was missing on a night where they could have all but guaranteed progression into the knockout stage as group winner.
Instead, Southgate brought on Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish, and Jordan Henderson, with the Liverpool veteran replacing none other than Jude Bellingham; one of England’s most intelligent players when it comes to spacial awareness.
While Southgate may have been fine with settling for a point while banking on the county’s chances against Wales in the penultimate group stage fixture before the next phase of the tournament, putting faith in the incredible depth of talent in the player pool and playing without a handbrake can so often win a tournament if it is framed correctly.
If Liverpool can find success both in the Premier League and Champions League while relying on Alexander-Arnold as a key facet to everything they do on the pitch, then surely England can give 20 minutes to one of its most creative players in the entire 26-man squad.
As one of the true heavyweights coming into Qatar on the back of deep runs in its last two tournaments, Southgate must do what he can to offer a platform for England to produce the level of play that highlights the Premier League as the top league in the world rather than tactical bashfulness.