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MISFIRING

For the first time in Gareth Southgate’s tenure, doubts are creeping in

Gareth Southgate has moved mountains for English football.

For many previously disillusioned fans the World Cup exploits 15 months ago galvanised their interest in the international side again.

That agonising semi-final defeat, despite the calibre of opposition beaten along the way, was a massive achievement and Southgate has more or less ridden the crest of a wave since.

Southgate has made England fun again

PA:Press Association
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Southgate has made England fun again

The feel good factor was back.

But recent performances have been worryingly quite English again, and for the first time doubts are creeping in.

All things considered England’s Euro 2020 qualifying group should be a walk in the park.

But Prague was perhaps his lowest point in charge

PA:Press Association
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But Prague was perhaps his lowest point in charge

Their closest rivals are the Czech Republic, very much a fading force, and new kids on the block Kosovo.

But England have made a real meal of both in their last two fixtures, including an abject 2-1 defeat in Prague last night that ended a 10-year unbeaten run in qualifiers.

Southgate has been hailed for his commitment to the next generation, his experience with the youth sides clearly a telling factor.

A late winner

PA:Press Association
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A late winner

Yet his team selections in their last two qualifiers – the 5-3 win over Kosovo and that reverse last night – have raised more than a few eyebrows.

All the best defences are built on solid and consistent partnerships, which may point to his persistence with Michael Keane alongside Harry Maguire.

But Keane has struggled for Everton all season and has been painfully exposed in both England qualifiers too.

Keane was all over the place again

Getty - Contributor
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Keane was all over the place again

He handed Kosovo an opener inside the first minute at St Mary’s and then failed to pick up Czech forward Zdenek Ondrasek for their late winner.

Southgate has reiterated his players need to be performing at club level to be in contention for England, which means Joe Gomez is sat warming the bench.

But a line has to be drawn when players simply don’t make the grade, and Keane is unfortunately way short of the standard required.

Southgate’s pledge to club form also doesn’t marry up with his choices at full back.

Danny Rose epitomises Spurs’ recent struggles yet he continues to get the nod ahead of Ben Chilwell at left-back.

Chilwell is levels about Rose at the moment

Getty Images - Getty
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Chilwell is levels about Rose at the moment

On the other flank the decision is tougher, but England’s struggles in midfield suggest Southgate’s persistence with Kieran Trippier is again wrong.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is the most creative player at a club who have won 17 successive Premier League games and are champions of Europe.

England and Liverpool’s midfields aren’t too dissimilar – not just because of Jordan Henderson’s presence – as they are based more on energy and graft over guile and craft.

Alexander-Arnold has to play to add more creativity

Reuters
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Alexander-Arnold has to play to add more creativity

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Alexander-Arnold has 19 assists from right-back for the Reds since the start of last season, so there’s no reason he can’t replicate that role for his country either.

In Trent’s absence the midfield – and Southgate’s selection – continues to frustrate.

James Maddison’s illness meant his hands were tied against the Czechs last night, but his refusal to integrate the Leicester man in earlier games is puzzling.

Maddison is yet to make his England debut

EPA
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Maddison is yet to make his England debut

No player has created more chances than Maddison in the Premier League since the start of last season, yet he is still to make his England debut.

While the likes of Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and Declan Rice have all been thrown in almost straight away, Maddison bizarrely still waits on the sidelines.

England’s attack can be excused for a rare off night in Prague, but they can’t keep picking up the pieces left by the men behind them.

An off night for Raheem and co.

Reuters
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An off night for Raheem and co.

How many goals would Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho hypothetically score against the Three Lions’ feeble backline? It might be a cricket score.

Fortunately for Southgate this might be the wake up call – or ‘reality Czech’ as most of the media seem to have branded it – that he needed.

England will be at Euro 2020, but if they want to make a real impression there he needs to start finding the right blend across the pitch.

That can start in Bulgaria on Monday night.

What England’s team should be at Euro 2020

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What England’s team should be at Euro 2020