How do Gareth Southgate's England improve and what will it take for them to get over the line at the World Cup?

A lock of John Stones’ hair or a fingernail within Jordan Pickford’s glove. Marcus Rashford’s penalty with Gianluigi Donnarumma committed and the goal gaping. Small margins are inevitable after the narrowest of defeats as England pick up the pieces.

There is a danger in reading too much into a loss that could clearly have gone the other way. Yet, perhaps mistakes can also be made if lessons are ignored as Gareth Southgate’s impressive team came up just short for a second major tournament in a row.

The minutiae will dominate the discussion in the aftermath. What had looked to be a bold call in bringing Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho on specifically to take penalties appeared folly within minutes when both men failed to find the net with their spot-kicks.

With the World Cup in Qatar just 17 months away, perhaps the psychological impact of being introduced in that way will be reassessed. The only other player brought on so late in the game to take a kick at this tournament was Rodri for Spain. He missed too.

But while this final defeat was a new experience for players and fans, there was also an alarming sense of repetition – and not because it came in the form of a penalty shootout. The similarities with the semi-final defeat to Croatia can hardly be overlooked.


The early England goal that should have been the platform upon which to build. Holding that lead for an hour when a second goal would surely have settled the game in their favour. Instead, starved of possession, Southgate’s side creaked under the pressure.

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The manager himself is not afraid of circumspection and he will surely examine whether he could be more proactive in the big moments. In the World Cup semi-final, he waited until the equaliser that had long been coming went in before making his first change.

At Wembley, it was a similar story, Leonardo Bonucci’s goal midway through the second half prompting a substitution and a change of shape within minutes. It is a gamble to make adjustments while ahead but Southgate should learn from these experiences.

There was no extra-time goal for Italy as there had been for Croatia in Moscow but for a team that has made great strides in so many ways off the field in terms of creating a winning culture, familiar issues of being unable to control possession on it remain.

It is an area that England might have to address with Qatar in mind, but in the absence of a Marco Verratti or a Sergio Busquets, how do they hope to wrestle control of the biggest games and maintain that grip? What personnel, tactics and approach will it require?

Given the England team that lined up against Italy on Sunday included seven of the same players who started the World Cup semi-final against Croatia, it should be no shock the strengths and weaknesses remain the same. Jordan Henderson came on too.

England’s two midfielders – Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice – are among the newcomers and both have shone. The latter was arguably the team’s best player in the final. Southgate must figure out whether he still needs more from deep if this side is to evolve.

Jude Bellingham is an obvious solution. The Dortmund midfielder only turned 18 during the tournament and yet he is already among the most exciting young players in Europe in his position. Further improvement would appear inevitable. Southgate must facilitate it.

There is more to come from Phil Foden, too. A supreme talent, he had threatened to set Euro 2020 alight when striking the post early on in the opening game but found himself on the periphery since starting against Scotland. A more pivotal role surely beckons.

As with Jack Grealish at Aston Villa, Foden has usually been deployed among the front three by his club manager but could they be used in a deeper role for England? With World Cup qualifiers against Albania and San Marino, there is a case for trying it.

Such is the talent further forwards, it would be useful if Foden, Grealish and Mason Mount – another used in the front three when he is capable of conjuring from deep – could operate in midfield and free up those advanced positions for others in the squad.

At 21, Jadon Sancho could be on the verge of taking the next big step in his career at Manchester United. His new club team-mate Mason Greenwood was unfortunate to miss this summer’s tournament through injury but will expect to force his way back in soon.

There will be those who move on but not many. While only three of Italy’s starting line-up in the final were 25 years of age or younger, there were 17 of England’s 26-man squad who come into that bracket. None of them are likely to be retiring before the World Cup.

Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker are both the wrong side of 30 but delivered for Southgate yet again. With Reece James improving and Trent Alexander-Arnold to return, the right side of defence is fiercely contested. The latter’s delivery could give England an edge.

It is a reminder of the quality that Southgate can call upon. It is a gift for any manager but also a responsibility. The challenge is to retain all of the positives of the past five years, while still searching for that little bit extra that will carry England over the line.

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