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LONDON — Experimentation is the name of these friendly games and England’s 2-1 win over Switzerland on Saturday exemplified the conundrum Gareth Southgate is wrestling with ahead of this year’s World Cup finals.
On the one hand, England reached the semifinals of the previous World Cup and last year’s Euros final under Southgate with a mixture of patience and pragmatism, largely exhibited in the form of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 shape. Perhaps mindful of fielding an inexperienced team, with Marc Guehi and Kyle Walker-Peters making their senior debuts against a side unbeaten in 11 previous internationals, Southgate laced his line-up with that inherent caution from the outset on Saturday.
– Report: Kane penalty lifts England over Switzerland
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Although Conor Gallagher, making his first start, was industrious in midfield, England were largely underwhelming, falling behind when Breel Embolo nodded in a 22nd-minute opener. They deserved to be behind at the break on the balance of play, but the hosts avoided that fate when Luke Shaw fired home an equaliser after Fabian Frei gave the ball away cheaply under pressure from Phil Foden.
Yet it was only when Southgate made four changes just after the hour mark — introducing Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Declan Rice and Tyrick Mitchell, another debutant — that England discovered anything like the attacking fluidity expected of them.
The winning goal came from a penalty awarded upon VAR review — Steven Zuber was adjudged to have handled in the box — giving Harry Kane the chance to score his 49th England goal, moving level with Sir Bobby Charlton and four behind record-holder Wayne Rooney. But it was reward for the renewed threat England posed after Southgate’s intervention, and provided further evidence for those who want him to take the handbrake off in Qatar.
“The system was to try to get the players in the squad through the two games in areas of the pitch where they would be really comfortable,” said Southgate. “We were a bit too quick to go and press the centre-backs and it opened up too much space. The switch of play can then be a problem. We talked about changing it after an hour and we knew that was going to be a better way of seeing the game through.”
Gareth Southgate responds to whether he wants Harry Kane to break England’s goalscoring record before the World Cup.
The list of absentees on Saturday underlined the feel of a training game: Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Aaron Ramsdale and Kalvin Phillips were among those missing. John Stones added to that group with a tight adductor sustained in the warm-up, meaning Ben White was drafted in around half an hour before kick-off.
Whether it contributed to the mistake White made Switzerland’s goal is debatable, but the Arsenal defender was caught out of position as Xherdan Shaqiri’s cross looped over his head for Embolo to score. Jordan Pickford was helpless to prevent Embolo’s goal, but he did make a fine save from Granit Xhaka’s low drive moments earlier, and an even better stop just afterwards as he turned Frei’s effort onto the crossbar.
Pickford has faced mounting pressure over his place in this team, with Ramsdale impressing at club level and Nick Pope returning to the squad following a long injury lay-off, but he kept England in this game during the first half in a performance that will do plenty to reinforce his number one status.
England’s midfield was the subject of much debate during the Euros, specifically the conservative double pivot of Declan Rice and Phillips. In that context, a dynamic display from 22-year-old Gallagher is an encouraging development, but Southgate’s admiration for that pairing remains clear.
“Conor is a player who is infectious with his energy and his aggression to press,” explained Southgate. “I thought he could have been a bit tidier with the ball a few times. That would be the first time in a long time we’ve started without either Rice or Phillips and it was important that we were able to see that because they’ve been significant in terms of that defensive solidity and balance of the team.
“I think the whole thing was a really worthwhile exercise for us, and that’s why you want that quality of opposition.
“We could take [games against] lower-level teams, but you don’t learn anything and actually we want to be stretched. It puts your record at risk, but that’s not important really: we are trying to do well in tournaments.”
Kane nudged himself closer to Wayne Rooney’s goals record — the penalty was his 49th international goal, taking him level with Sir Bobby Charlton and just four shy of the Derby County manager — and Southgate joked afterwards that he’d like the Tottenham forward to break it in December’s World Cup final. But to get that far without a more prolific spell from their number nine, England will likely greater potency from other players. It’s another thing Southgate is aiming to tackle and despite establishing a record of 21 games unbeaten in 90 minutes, it remains a work in progress.