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England’s biggest problem is the easiest to solve

After about an hour on a hot, sticky night in Cologne, the England fans behind Jordan Pickford’s goal launched into a chant to the tune of the Great Escape, led by a banging drum and bellowed out with a renewed sense of purpose. When it reached the end, they started again, repeating themselves for at least 15 minutes, going in the same cycles, sticking to the same rhythm in an endless drone. In a way, it was a fitting tribute to the players in front of them, given that was how England performed in this dismal 0-0 draw against Slovenia.

For a while, it was heart-warming stuff from the travelling number, a determination to enjoy themselves and provide their own entertainment even when Gareth Southgate’s failed side could not. There was a gallows humour to it, nothing else for it than pretending England were winning.

But, as Scotland have shown in the past week, when your fans and a continued sense of support off the pitch are the biggest positives to take, it’s a sign that things have gone badly wrong on it.

Then, at full-time, came the boos, cascading over the England players, with plenty left in reserve for Southgate as he went to applaud them on his own. There were even a couple of plastic cups thrown in his direction, that landed in the penalty box.

You could say they got closer to goal than England managed here. This was a tough watch, one that this time has to be followed with drastic intervention. This England side, somehow, have done enough to finish Group D as winners, but nobody in the last-16 will be fearing them.

Much of the build-up to what suddenly became a must-win game for England, given the clear incentive to top their group, was dominated by their problems out of possession. England were too tired to press against Denmark, suggested Southgate. No we’re not, countered Declan Rice, in a remark that may have just been bullishness from the midfielder but also could have been a glimpse at how this has broken down, that England couldn’t even agree on what was going wrong.

Against Slovenia, where England saw 70 per cent of the possession, there would be much more focus on their work on the ball. Slovenia set up in a 4-4-2 shape and left two strikers up front There should have been spaces for England to exploit, particularly in the pocket behind Andraz Sporar and Benjamin Sesko. It was clearly the ball that was required. But England were hesitant to find Rice even when he was available. Phil Foden had moments to turn, but he, again, was often occupying the same spaces as Jude Bellingham.

And so England’s cycles became predictable and Slovenia stood back, completely unconcerned. If England’s opponents had prepared themselves for a reaction, Southgate’s started sluggishly, even more so in their opening two games. Within the first five minutes Bellingham and Marc Guehi lost possession carelessly, then John Stones played the ball straight out of play, twice! But at least you can’t fall back in retreat and in defence of a one-goal lead if there isn’t one in the first place, right? Right?

Gareth Southgate after the Slovenia game
Gareth Southgate after the Slovenia game (Getty Images)
England pair Kane and Trippier
England pair Kane and Trippier (Getty Images)

This was basic from England, their patterns readable throughout. Slovenia knew Kieran Trippier was always going to play inside from left-back and never down the line to Foden, whose first instinct himself was to drift centrally. Foden, though, was at least a bright spark in the sense that he threatened to drag England out of their numbingly simple guessable moves. Conor Gallagher, who was the only change Southgate made to his starting line-up, was a ghost within the inside right channel. Slovenia mostly ignored him, as did England.

Kobbie Mainoo, at least, was harder to leave, given the teenager arrived and offered brief buzz, even if the Manchester United midfielder drifted into the same areas that Foden and Bellingham were looking for. On came Cole Palmer, belatedly, for his first minutes of the Euros. He at least showed some urgency. Yet it was just more of the same from everyone else, the sideways passes, the coming back inside, England playing with a shrug. The form of Bellingham, too, would have to now be a major concern, with the Real Madrid midfielder involved in more spats with the Slovenia side than England’s display.

There are no positives to take from this, nothing to build apart from ripping it up and starting again. Southgate won’t do that, but England’s biggest problem is also the easiest to solve. Trippier, for a start, is not a left-back. England need width, options outside, someone to help Foden. Luke Shaw is still not fit and there are no other left-backs in the squad. But England, desperately, need something to break the cycle.

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