Gareth Southgate has faced substantial criticism recently, but there are positive aspects for the Englishman amidst the challenges.

Nostalgia for the early 2000s is prevalent, and the England men’s football team seems to channel the spirit of Sven Goran Eriksson’s unsuccessful ‘Golden Generation’ in their tournament performances. Familiar patterns from that era have surfaced in their first two Euro 2024 matches.

Players are being utilized out of their regular positions, and off-field distractions have affected the team’s cohesion, prompting intense media scrutiny of the manager. Some squad members have even responded to criticism.

After Gary Lineker described England’s performance against Denmark as “poor,” captain Harry Kane offered a robust rebuttal. “The reality is, we haven’t achieved anything significant as a nation in a long time. Many of these former players were also part of that… they understand how challenging it is to compete in major tournaments. It’s tough representing England,” he told the press.

This episode underscores the widespread disappointment following the lackluster draw against Denmark and the unconvincing victory over Serbia. But is the overwhelmingly negative reaction justified? England currently leads their group and is likely to advance to the knockout stages, barring unforeseen circumstances. Perhaps there’s reason for optimism after all?

Teams typically don’t peak during the group stage

Firstly, it’s crucial to remember that successful tournament teams rarely reach their peak in the group stage. This isn’t merely a cliché; recent international competitions provide evidence to support this claim. Consider the 2022 World Cup, for example.

Lionel Messi’s Argentina ultimately triumphed in Qatar, but do you recall their start to the tournament? They were defeated by minnows Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, Didier Deschamps’ France has traditionally started slowly in tournaments. During their victorious 2018 World Cup campaign, their group stage performances were far from impressive. They scraped past Australia with a penalty and late own goal, narrowly beat Peru 1-0, and played a dull goalless draw against Denmark.

Portugal’s Euro 2016 campaign was equally unconvincing during the group stage. Three draws led to a third-place finish behind Hungary and Iceland. Despite this, Fernando Santos’ team lifted the trophy in Paris.

This historical context should encourage England. While Gareth Southgate’s team may not have hit their stride yet, recent history shows that early struggles do not preclude reaching the final stages.

Lessons from Euro 2020

England has personal experience of this phenomenon. Before reaching the Euro 2020 final under Southgate, where they eventually lost to Italy on penalties, they did not dominate their group stage opponents.

Key players like Harry Kane and Kyle Walker were underwhelming in the opener against Croatia, and a lackluster goalless draw against Scotland followed. Similar critiques were voiced by pundits after those matches.

“Football won’t come home like that, not with the way they are playing,” remarked Graeme Souness on ITV. “Harry Kane’s poor form is a major concern. If he doesn’t perform in this tournament, England won’t go far.”

Gary Neville echoed these sentiments, saying, “Is the expectation too much for them? For some of these guys, this could be the biggest game they’ve played. It was a lackluster performance.”

Following this setback, England rebounded by defeating the Czech Republic and Germany in the round of 16, with Southgate addressing team weaknesses through tactical adjustments. Now, his task is to inspire a similar turnaround against Germany.

A valuable learning experience

England’s first two matches have provided Southgate with plenty to ponder as he prepares for this challenge. As the saying goes, “You win or you learn.”

There’s a lengthy list of issues apparent in this England squad, but identifying these problems early in the tournament is advantageous compared to discovering them later in the knockout stages.

The midfield puzzle has garnered significant attention, and Southgate’s comments on Kalvin Phillips have fueled speculation. Concerns also surround Kane’s fitness, as well as the compatibility of Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham in midfield. Even Declan Rice, usually dependable, has not been at his best.

Identifying these challenges on the big stage allows Southgate to focus on finding solutions before they jeopardize England’s tournament prospects.

Defensive resilience

Despite these challenges, there have been positive aspects in England’s first two matches. Heading into the tournament, defense was considered the team’s Achilles’ heel, especially with Harry Maguire sidelined due to injury and Luke Shaw struggling for fitness.

Marc Guehi stepped in as Maguire’s replacement and, aside from one mistake against Denmark, has been one of England’s standout performers. The team has generally been solid defensively; after two matches, they allowed the fewest expected goals (xG) of any team (1.07).

Of course, this statistic must be balanced with England’s own struggles in creating scoring opportunities; they ranked second-last in xG created after their first two fixtures, ahead of only Scotland. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that a previously vulnerable area of the team has shown resilience.

Shaw’s imminent return

There’s more good news on the defensive front. On Monday, Luke Shaw participated in full team training. While Kieran Trippier has performed admirably in an unfamiliar left-back role, his inability to provide width in the final third has been a concern.

“After the Denmark draw, Southgate commented, “It’s clear that our team’s balance is compromised because we don’t have our best left-back.”

Shaw’s return to Manchester United will hopefully resolve these issues. Shaw may not have played since February, but Southgate believes he will be fit enough to play a significant role in the tournament, or he wouldn’t have selected him. The hope is that his insertion into the starting XI will have a positive impact on the team’s overall performance.

Don’t forget about the talent

If all goes well, England could achieve impressive results. Following those two lackluster performances, it may seem like a stretch, but England still has the most talented squad at Euro 2024, player-for-player. The squad includes La Liga and Premier League players of the season, the European Golden Boot winner, and many others with extensive top-level experience.

Surely players like Foden, Bellingham, and Kane won’t perform as poorly as they did against Denmark when England faces Slovenia on Tuesday? This type of optimism has sustained England supporters in the aftermath of the disappointing draw.

However, if these problems persist, it’s difficult to envision Southgate rallying the squad for what will undoubtedly be a challenging round of 16 match.