Opinion

Southgate must sort out England's defensive woes

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Long-suffering England fans have every reason to be excited about their team's immediate future but unless manager Gareth Southgate fixes his defensive problems their hopes of glory will end in tears.

A rejuvenated and revitalised England team took full advantage of an easy path to come within a whisker of reaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup final.

A 2-1 defeat in extra-time to Croatia crushed their dreams of emulating the class of 1966 and bringing home the most coveted prize in world football.

England's free spirit and attacking flair were again evident in their first match of the UEFA Nations League against Spain at Wembley.

A sweeping team move that ended with a well-taken goal from striker Marcus Rashford was a clear indication of what Southgate's England are all about: fearless positivity and creative attacking play.  

There is much to like about this England team even though on paper there are few, if any, players who can be seen as genuinely world class, with the exception of Tottenham's hot spur Harry Kane.

There is however plenty to dislike about their defence, too.

As we saw in the World Cup, when England seemed to panic at the first signs of pressure, this glaring weakness was again evident at the weekend.

Two minutes after taking the lead, England's defence was collectively caught ball-watching and Saul slotted home an equaliser.

The Spaniards, who showed that, despite their World Cup problems, they are still a technically brilliant side, went ahead when Rodrigo was allowed to slip the ball into the net from a set-piece without actually being challenged.

These were the sort of mistakes that appeared during the World Cup in Russia but were overlooked as mass hysteria gripped the nation at the team's unexpected access to the business end of the tournament.

To put things into perspective, England had made only four major semi-finals in their history: the 1966 and 1990 World Cups and the 1968 and 1980 European Championships, so the widespread feeling of euphoria was hardly surprising or unjustified.

Yet England, remember, conceded in every game at the 2018 World Cup except the quarter-final against Sweden and lost three out of their seven matches.

Southgate, who is emerging as one of the most likeable managers in world football; who treats the media with respect and does not bombard journalists with inane cliches as if they were fools, has already started to leave his mark on the national team.

The side we saw in Russia did not possess the finesse, exuberance and explosiveness of France or Belgium - in my view the best two teams in the tournament - but were free of the mental shackles that may have hindered other England players in the past.

The fear of failure was replaced by a pressure-free craving for success and this fresh come-what-may approach nearly paid off.

Even though, it must be said, England lost the three games in which they faced strong opponents which shows that the team is not the finished product.

Fans of the Three Lions would be entitled to feel that with so many big countries either not qualifying for Russia or playing poorly in the tournament itself, this World Cup was there for the taking.

Goodness knows when England will be presented with such an easy path to a World Cup or European Championship final.

Yet attack is the best form of defence, they say, so it should be all good for England that have in captain Kane a quality striker with a nose for goal and a top target man in the best British tradition.

However, unless Southgate finds ways to make his suspect defence less porous and give it more protection from the midfielders, all his brave intentions will come unstuck.