Gareth Southgate can afford himself a moment’s satisfaction as he ponders the state of his England team, one final warm-up match out from departing for the World Cup.
He will set off for Russia with a clear and settled tactical system which appears to have the commitment of the players and is capable of producing spells of vibrant attacking play, as witnessed in the first half of Saturday’s 2-1 friendly win over Nigeria.
Yet there remains a nagging doubt about Southgate’s England: by any measure – the chances they create, the relative records of their rivals, the quality of goalscorer they can field – they simply do not score enough goals.
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England’s first 45 minutes against Nigeria was as good an attacking spell as anything we have seen under Southgate. A bolder midfield axis of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard combined with Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane to fashion chance after chance.
The hosts should have been out of sight by the interval; instead they were only two up – and not from one of their fluid moves but from a set-piece and an error by a teenage goalkeeper.
England lacked any ruthlessness and better teams than Nigeria will punish them.
A long-standing problem
This is not a new problem; England have struggled to balance their solidity with penetrating the opposition since Southgate took charge.
In those 14 games they have scored three goals or more just once, in a 4-0 win in Malta that was only 1-0 until the 86th minute.
The teams vying with England for glory in Russia have been far more prolific. In their last 14 games, Spain have scored three or more on eight occasions. Belgium have done it seven times, Germany and Brazil six, France five and Argentina four.
One factor may be that most of England’s forwards are short of top form. Despite scoring, Kane still looks slightly off the pace following his injury in March, in which time his goal-per-game rate has dropped from 0.9 to 0.7.
Sterling has five goals in his last 22 outings for club and country, compared with 18 in 30 before that; Lingard has three in his last 24, having previously averaged one in three; and only four of Marcus Rashford’s 14 this season have come in his last 30 games.
The one man in form is Jamie Vardy, who scored eight in the first half of his season and twice as many in the second half.
Perhaps there was an element of rust following a post-season break, or maybe it is a confidence issue.
Costa Rica on Thursday at Elland Road offer a last chance to boost morale and open the floodgates, but don’t count on a goal rush: the central Americans have shipped three or more just once in 24 fixtures.
Source : CityA.M.