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Foden-Bellingham is becoming the new Gerrard-Lampard!

The new Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard: Jude Bellingham-Phil Foden dilemma threatens to define another England golden generation

OpinionEnglandJude BellinghamPhil FodenEuropean ChampionshipFEATURESEngland vs Slovenia

Major tournaments often throw up a deep sense of déjà vu where England are concerned. At first there is huge hype in the build-up stemming from players having had great seasons for their clubs. An underwhelming start tends to follow, accompanied by an outburst of rage across the nation. There are some flashes of joy before an inevitable exit in the knockouts to the first good team they face, invariably on penalties.

Gareth Southgate, however, broke the mould. His England sides were characterised by humility and the greater good was prioritised over individual egos. As a result, tournaments became genuinely enjoyable occasions. But two games into Euro 2024, after an unconvincing win over Serbia and a dismal draw with Denmark, it feels like the bad old days again.

And Southgate is responsible for the messy performances after walking into the familiar trap that plagued many of his predecessors: trying to cram as many star players into the team as possible without much thought as to how they function together.

    • England arrived in Germany with more attacking quality than any other side in the tournament. Harry Kane is the European Golden Shoe winner, Jude Bellingham the top scorer in a Real Madrid side that romped to the Spanish title and Champions League, while Phil Foden was crowned the best player in the Premier League.

      Even allowing for the injuries that have rocked their preparations, the starting XI Southgate picked for England’s first two matches made for impressive reading. Every name is a key player for their club, but it is abundantly clear that they do not work together.

      Kieran Trippier is not a left-back and has barely tried to play like one in either match, essentially operating as a third central defender. John Stones looks shorn of full fitness and has retreated to being a traditional centre-back, showing none of the attacking verve he usually demonstrates for Manchester City.

      Declan Rice has also had to sit much deeper than where he tended to operate for Arsenal last season, while Trent Alexander-Arnold looked out of his depth for the second game in midfield, a role Jurgen Klopp always resisted playing him in for Liverpool.

  • Stars not clicking

    The three main stars: Bellingham, Kane and Foden, have not clicked at all. Kane’s tendency to drop deep means he is treading on the toes of Foden and Bellingham, who both aspire to be No. 10s. As Ian Wright put it on ITV‘s coverage: “We’re coming too deep when we need to stretch the play.”

    Bellingham seemed tired from his all-action performance against Serbia while Foden only played marginally better than he had in the opening game, coming closer than anyone to restoring England’s lead when he hammered the post. However, he did not make his side function any better, as his tendency to come inside exacerbated England’s problem down the left flank.

    The Three Lions are already lopsided due to the lack of a natural left-back until Luke Shaw regains full fitness. The obvious way to prevent that becoming a problem is to play a traditional left winger ahead of Trippier, but deploying Foden there meant England’s left side barely existed, making it easy for Denmark to defend against them as well as offering an obvious area to target going forward.

  • Frank Lampard Steven GerrardGetty

    Lampard & Gerrard revisited

    A lack of good options on the left wing is something that has haunted many England teams of the past. But it ceased to be a problem when Raheem Sterling broke into the team, while Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish offered greater strength-in-depth in the position, as did Foden when he played as a wide forward for City.

    With Sterling now completely out of the picture and Grealish and Rashford not selected for the tournament, Southgate only has Eberechi Eze and Anthony Gordon to choose from, who have had excellent seasons but lack international experience. Even so, both players seem like better options than fielding Foden and Bellingham together behind Kane again.

    The conundrum facing Southgate is reminiscent of the issues Sven-Goran Eriksson grappled with when he tried to accommodate Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, two of the best English midfielders of their generation who were too similar to complement each other.

    Eriksson fielded them together at Euro 2004, leaving England with no natural holding midfielder and putting Paul Scholes on the left wing. That decision led to the Manchester United great retiring from international football before he was 30. But more importantly it resulted in England getting knocked out by Portugal in the quarter-finals on penalties. They met the same fate at the 2006 World Cup, failing to break down Portugal in a goalless 120 minutes.

  • Gareth Southgate Phil Foden England Euro 2024Getty

    ‘Age-old problem’

    Jamie Carragher, who missed a penalty in the World Cup shootout against Portugal, spotted the similarities immediately after the draw with Denmark. He wrote in The Telegraph: “The biggest criticism I can make of our first two Euro 2024 performances is that they reminded me of the England era I played in. We have been given a sober reminder that football is about picking the best team, not the best players.”

    “Gareth Southgate is encountering what has been an age-old problem for every England manager since 1966. You look at the squad going into a Euros and World Cup, see a talented group who perform well for their club, and you become seduced by the idea of bringing them all together.

    “In my time, we looked around the dressing room and saw Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen and thought that if we could make it click, anyone could be beaten. It never happened. Something had to give, but the decision to leave a big name out was never taken when the most consequential games in the knockout phases came along.”

    Eriksson did not have the courage to drop one of Lampard or Gerrard and Southgate had no appetite to remove Foden from his line-up or indeed to take out Alexander-Arnold. But he will have to make tough decisions for the next game against Slovenia and certainly in the knockout rounds.

  • Jude Bellingham Phil FodenGetty

    Going against his nature

    What is frustrating is that Southgate had appeared to be unafraid of making big calls when he named his provisional squad in May, dropping Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford before axing Grealish from his final squad.

    There were strong arguments to make those calls as all three players had hugely disappointing seasons. But he seems to be picking players on their reputations rather than their suitability for the team, going against his usual tendencies, when the collective was the most important thing.

    “For all the criticism of his reign, Southgate has previously avoided those unfavourable comparisons with the ‘golden generation’. This England squad have been as together as any of the past 40 years,” added Carragher.

    “If there is to be a radical improvement, they have to get back to that immediately, which means Southgate has to show courage, rattle cages and leave out some stars for the greater good.”

  • Gareth Southgate Trent Alexander-Arnold England 2024Getty Images

    Southgate must be brave

    Gary Lineker also felt he was watching a familiar movie. “I’ve seen this tournament after tournament now, with an unbelievably gifted bunch of players,” the former England striker and BBC presenter said on ‘The Rest is Football’ podcast. “You’ve got to be brave. You can’t play and worry about your team’s weaknesses. You’ve got to play to your team’s strengths.”

    And Gary Neville, another member of that failed Golden Generation alongside Carragher, felt Southgate was falling into the familiar trap. “This embarrassment of riches is causing him more of a problem than giving him the answer,” he said on ITV. “Something has to change here, this ends badly the way it’s going.”

    Southgate has become England’s most successful manager at tournaments since the World Cup-winning Sir Alf Ramsey by being his own man and picking the team that works but he now is facing criticism like he never has before. It’s time for him to return to the instincts that made him different from those that came before him.

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