England went into the World Cup believing they could score from every set-piece; right now they are going into next summer’s Euros looking like they will concede from every one of them.
“We’ve identified it as a key area in tournaments,” Gareth Southgate said out in Russia as England scored nine times and received plaudits for their nous. But that applies to both ends of the pitch. And, right now, England are all over the place when it comes to trying to repel free-kicks and corners. The defence has become indefensible.
Following the performance against Kosovo last time out - when three goals were carelessly conceded - Southgate was looking for a clean sheet as much as a victory out here in Prague. That hope lasted just nine minutes and he ended up getting neither.
There had been a clear reaction to the second-half Kosovo chaos with a change of formation and that did not last either. Southgate switched to a 4-2-3-1 with Jordan Henderson, whose passing was poor, and Declan Rice attempting to shield the defence and Mason Mount, on his first start, further forward. Unfortunately it meant England were over-run in midfield at times but it was those set-pieces which are the biggest, recurring worrying. And that speaks to organisation on the training ground as much as which players are out there.
Just four minutes after England scored with the one department of the team – the attack – that is not a concern they were undone by ill-discipline and lack of concentration from a corner.
Much of the focus will be on Michael Keane and the harsh reality is that the 26-year-old, earning his 10th cap, is unlikely to make the squad for the Euros. Not unless his form improves dramatically. He just does not appear good enough. With John Stones expected to return and with Fikayo Tomori on the bench the pressure is growing while the arguments will be put forward that Tyrone Mings, also in the squad, Lewis Dunk, Joe Gomez and James Tarkowski are all better options than the Everton centre-half whose confidence looks shot.
Keane was at fault for the Czech’s equalising goal – and later for their winning strike - as he inexplicably lost Jakub Brabec who was able to knee the ball in at the far post. Before that it had been bedlam with Harry Maguire arguing with Patrik Schick and losing concentration before the kick was taken and Danny Rose fuming that he had been fouled and collecting a booking with his next challenge which rules him out against Bulgaria on Monday.
Southgate was bemused. At the next break in play he called Maguire and Keane over and, after that, also went to talk to England’s video analysts Mike Baker and Steve O’Brien to find out just what was going on. It was a video nasty.
For a defender such as Southgate this was not acceptable. He had already talked about stamping out stupid errors and this game was pockmarked with them as another corner led to a chance for Schick as the ball was allowed to run across the England penalty area. This problem had started to afflict England at the Nations League Finals and it has continued. They cannot hope to do well next summer – and they should still make it - without addressing them whatever their wonderful attacking threat.
There are 247 days to go until England should kick off Group Day at Wembley Stadium, where they will play all their group games if they win this group and there is much work to do. The front-line is fixed and we know there is a massive tick for Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho with Marcus Rashford, Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi looking like a more than handy back up trio. So good news.
But behind them what will Southgate do in the seven games – three more qualifiers and probably four friendlies – before the Euros start? He has evolved England from a pragmatic 5-3-2 at the World Cup to – what he hopes – will be a 4-3-3 which Southgate reverted back to for the second-half and while the goals have flowed going forward the frailties are there further back.
A tweak was made. In the first-half England marked man-for-man. In the second they mixed this with zonal and that helped.
But it was from open play that England lost the game and once more the defending was woeful as Keane did not close down an attack and no-one marked the goal-scorer, substitute Zdenek Ondrasek. And so England lost their first qualification tie in 43 games and their first meaningful once since Croatia beat them in Steve McClaren’s last game in 2007. Southgate said he would decide on whether England’s players could have a beer and celebrate after the game if they secured qualification. That was put on hold.