WROCLAW, Poland — Gareth Southgate is expending hard-earned credit on retaining Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire, but Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Ukraine raises further questions over whether that loyalty is misplaced.
England’s search for the requisite improvement to finally end a 58-year wait for a men’s trophy next summer has led to renewed scrutiny of Henderson and Maguire, who were fortunate to be included in the squad after the former moved to the Saudi Pro League and the latter was frozen out at Manchester United.
Southgate defended selecting the pair on the basis of both their past achievements but also what they bring to the here and now: Henderson, we were told, is still operating at a high level while Maguire possesses invaluable know-how that stands as a useful outlier in an otherwise youthful group of centre-backs.
There was little evidence to support either argument at the Tarczynski Arena. This is not to suggest the pair were solely at fault as England were collectively laboured in possession, particularly in an underwhelming first half. And nor is this result a disaster — England have won 21 of their last 23 Euro qualifiers and remain firmly on course to top Group C.
But each performance is now viewed through the prism of whether they can actually win a major tournament and in that context — with such a talented group of players at his disposal — the focus is increasingly shifting onto Southgate’s decision-making.
It would have been easy for Southgate to move on from Henderson this summer given the backlash from the LGBTQ+ community to his move to Al Ettifaq. But he chose to keep a player he views as a key member of his leadership group but also someone providing important balance to England’s midfield. Amid all the exciting, dynamic options, there has to be some ballast, particularly in a tricky fixture against opponents supported fervently by many fans displaced to Poland due to the war in their home country.
That added a hugely emotive feel to this occasion, most obviously when Oleksandr Zinchenko opened the scoring, finishing a well-worked move which climaxed with Yukhym Konoplya’s clever cutback for the Arsenal man to slot home past Jordan Pickford. Zinchenko has spoken so movingly about the impact of the war on Ukraine that nobody could deny him a moment of pure joy like this. But Maguire did not cover himself in glory. He was rusty throughout which, of course, he would be after 23 minutes of club football this season.
The 30-year-old earned his 58th cap here but if he was unable to help England achieve a positive result — wasting a couple of presentable opportunities at the other end of the pitch in the second half — then the case grows stronger for other younger alternatives to get their chance. After all, Marc Guehi delivered an encouraging display on his fifth appearance but Fikayo Tomori (three caps), Lewis Dunk (one cap) and Levi Colwill (no caps) had no taste of an occasion Southgate rightly suggested should be of benefit in the longer run.
England’s bigger issues were in possession. They had 79 per cent of the ball in the opening 20 minutes and managed only one shot. Harry Kane produced a brilliant individual moment on 41 minutes, coming deep to get involved in the game to produce a sublime ball which Kyle Walker controlled and converted, his first England goal on his 77th cap.
To underline England’s attacking travails, Kane only had 16 touches and completed seven passes in the first half. James Maddison had earlier tried to get England moving but he struggled to find the progressive passing the visitors needed to kickstart their performance.
“James would be one that won’t have played in an England game like that in the past,” said Southgate. “Marc, Chilly [Ben Chilwell] wouldn’t have played a huge number of those games for us either. So, the only way to learn and grow as a team is to have those sorts of experiences.
“To go behind in a game like that is a challenge, but we stayed calm. I’m not so sure it was a case of digging in because I think we were in control of the game but we had to defend some counter-attack moments and a couple of set plays well. Without a doubt, to go through that sort of experience is good learning for several of the players,” the England manager said.
Southgate reached a natural conclusion to that answer before catching himself and adding: “I think on a night like this the experienced players were really important for the team and I thought they all did a very good job.”
That was a pointed reference to Maguire, Henderson and Walker but only one of that trio really proved their worth here. There was a modicum of improvement after the break. Bukayo Saka, subdued by an early late tackle from Vitalii Mykolenko, grew into the game and struck the crossbar on 59 minutes with a superb left-footed strike which goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan did brilliantly to get fingertips to.
Then, Southgate introduced Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford but to little effect. Foden replaced a subdued Jude Bellingham in a central role before switching to the right flank as Conor Gallagher came on for Saka with four minutes left.
“I think Ukraine made it difficult to find space in midfield so credit to them,” said Southgate. “They defended in a in a very compact way. That helped with us having control up to that point. And then we turned too many balls over that we wouldn’t normally do so, yeah, I wouldn’t expect that to happen again.”
Southgate has earned the right to make any choices he sees fit given the scale of England’s progress during his seven-year tenure. And it is worth remembering that in this Group C campaign, England won in Italy for the first time since 1961 to suggest further improvement is coming. It just hasn’t consistently arrived yet.