16 Conclusions on England drawing with Denmark: Southgate out, awful Alexander-Arnold, rubbish Rice

Matt Stead
England player Trent Alexander-Arnold, manager Gareth Southgate and midfielder Declan Rice
England were awful against Denmark

England were miserably awful against Denmark and Gareth Southgate must be on the way out, along with midfielder Trent Alexander-Arnold. That was Algeria bad.


1) “This is not the England that I know. I hope, when we play the next game, we forget this performance and we forget to play with fear and without confidence. It’s incredible, the mistakes of the players. When they can’t control the ball, or miss easy passes. We missed everything. This is incredible given the level of the England players. I don’t like to speak about individual players. When you don’t play well it’s because of the team. I can change the tactics, I will try to do something different. It won’t be difficult to lift them before Slovenia.”

Fabio Capello was speaking after perhaps the worst England tournament performance in recent memory. Mere mention of the word ‘Algeria’ or Emile Heskey doing a stepover is a dog whistle to a certain weathered element of the country’s supporter base. That goalless draw at the 2010 World Cup has haunted an entire generation.

Down to the quirk of having one remaining group game against Slovenia left to rectify myriad issues, and the manager also evading questions over his future which have only intensified after such an abysmal, error-strewn, frantic display, those England manager quotes could just as easily have been after the Denmark game; it was every bit as bad.

There was even some juxtaposition between Wayne Rooney’s frustrated “nice to see your own fans booing you” outburst 14 years ago and Kyle Walker blaming the “hostile” environment of a neutral venue dominated by England fans for the team’s rank incompetence over 90 minutes.

That was soul-crushingly, reign-endingly terrible.


2) Both Southgate and the FA have made it expressly clear they want to continue this relationship into the 2026 World Cup but this performance was legitimately poor enough to end that pretence. England have no succession plan and if this does not force them to hastily devise one then nothing will.

There have been signs even at this tournament that it could be their last together. Southgate has been uncharacteristically tetchy when discussing the negative commentary of him and his players recently; the composition of his squad was strangely inconsistent with his past decisions; and this has already been an abnormally long lifespan for a coach in this specific post. He has been a phenomenal manager for England but the tense in that sentence has become increasingly conspicuous and pertinent.

No longer does he feel like a manager moulded perfectly to the job, or even just the best candidate for it anymore. That triple substitution felt desperate, existential, a pointedly bold series of calls for the sake of it and a response to criticism rather than a legitimate tactical move to suit the circumstances of the game or team. In that moment, he was the boyfriend reacting to being told he wasn’t spontaneous enough by booking a two-week holiday, shaving his head and buying some bedroom items, when actually just some flowers and a trip to the cinema would have sufficed.

None of it made sense. Not the right-back at left-back or the right-back in midfield. Not the box-to-box midfielder as deep as the centre-halves. Not the moment when, with three elite creators who thrive on finding runners behind a defence taken off, two of the best players in the squad at running behind the defence were brought on. It was shocking mismanagement.


3) And Southgate calling Trent Alexander-Arnold’s continued deployment in central midfield an “experiment” was embarrassing. Not to get too Roy Keane about it: this is a major tournament we’re talking about here. It’s not really the place for tests and trials.

All but one of Alexander-Arnold’s England starts over the past year have been in midfield. He is frequently listed in the squad as a midfielder. He is, for his country, a midfielder. And while variables like the fall of Kalvin Phillips cannot be accurately predicted, Southgate has had ample time to prepare for all eventualities. He must have known this was a possibility when Alexander-Arnold first attempted the role in a qualifier against Malta last June, yet the position still seems alien to a player whose skillset continues to apparently baffle the manager.

Southgate even suggested before the Denmark game that the Liverpool defender was being used there in part because he was kowtowing to persistent public pressure. “It is slightly ironic that I am now being told not to play Trent when I was told to play Trent for eight years and not to let Harry go deep,” he said, hinting at another problem which would become prevalent against Denmark. The irony of him taking both players off long before full-time will not be lost.

In terms of Alexander-Arnold, the experiment has already taken place. The only possible conclusion is that it has failed miserably.


4) Alexander-Arnold was one of many players guilty of some dreadful decisions in possession just in the first couple of minutes. He misplaced a pass in his own half, as did Declan Rice. Kieran Trippier attempted a wholly unnecessary switch which sailed over Kyle Walker’s head and out for a throw-in. Walker himself passed to no-one soon after.

The sheer amount of simple square passes played aimlessly by a white shirt to a red one was astounding, even that early on. And Southgate cannot be blamed for such a curious level of individual incompetence, but it set a tone which he did nothing to change.

If anything, the manager made it worse with his trademark first substitution of Alexander-Arnold for Conor Gallagher, who was awful.

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5) While England categorically failed to exert any sort of control or exude an ounce of calm in midfield around midway through the first half until full-time, Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton watched on. It might be hindsight to state that either would have at least helped shift the momentum, but it does not feel particularly groundbreaking to suggest that Gallagher was just completely the wrong change to make either way.

His first input was good enough, getting to a loose ball in the area ahead of Christian Eriksen. But his second was to be caught waiting too long to receive the ball, to which he responded by pressing high, entirely on his own, before getting booked for a late tackle trying to win it back.

That substitution belongs on the epitaph to Southgate’s reign. When England were stalling and needed some gears, he brought on another engine and only exacerbated the problem.


6) But England were somehow not the part of this game which crumbled most noticeably: the actual pitch playing a 90-minute-long version of Is It Cake? cannot have helped, although it did not hinder Denmark and their tireless press.

The turf was ripping up at a ludicrous rate from the first whistle. Walker had to change his studs after slipping twice and at one point the excellent Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg clattered into Rice in a veritable grass explosion. It was like Eric Dier on Sergio Ramos, but with slightly worse groundsmanship.


7) One of England’s better moves in the opening stages culminated in Walker cleverly feigning to cross before cutting it back to Phil Foden, who jinked past his marker and curled a shot over from precisely the sort of position he scores with unerring frequency for Manchester City.

His location was perhaps the most prevalent talking point after the Serbia game and Foden was certainly more prominent against Denmark. No England player had more shots or completed more dribbles and he hit the post with a fine strike in the second half.

But some of the decisions he made were atrocious. An excellent run in the 41st minute had Denmark backing off with Harry Kane in front of Foden, in space and onside in a phenomenal shooting position. But the Manchester City forward took it on himself and hit a tame effort which was easily saved.

The half ended with Foden receiving the ball on the edge of the area and shooting well over. He did not create a single chance but some people have been crying out for him to simply “play central” for so long that such damaging wastefulness will likely be ignored because he ostensibly made things happen. Another read of that is that he squandered the sort of opportunities he routinely maximises for his club.


8) The England goal looked like a fairly decent passing move, too. Marc Guehi clipped a ball over to Walker, who played it to Bukayo Saka. It was moved on to Jude Bellingham before Walker took over again and delivered a low cross which Kane eventually converted.

But even then, it was essentially scored in spite of England’s best efforts. Bellingham’s pass was almost definitely intended for Saka, only rescued by Walker’s pace and the five-a-side-tracking energy of Viktor Kristiansen. Then the defender’s delivery was both late and poor, salvaged by a few deflections to reach Kane.

How fitting it was that England’s best moment still consisted of slack execution and a bad idea.


9) And as Southgate’s Law dictates, scoring was the worst thing that could have happened to England. They had three shots to one and 62.7% possession in the 18 minutes before and leading up to the goal, then one shot to five and 24.6% possession in the subsequent quarter of an hour, in which they conceded the equaliser.

Walker insisted after the game that England dropping off after scoring was not a managerial directive – he “has expressed that he wants to play free, attacking football” – which is damning in a variety of ways. Either a) Walker is not being wholly honest and they are carrying out Southgate’s plan to preserve energy and take the sting out of games, b) the players are not listening to the coach or c) they are incapable of following his instructions. Each of those shame the manager in different ways and there are no other viable explanations.

The average position of every England player from the point they scored to half-time was in their own half. That gave Denmark an inch and they took a mile. It invited pressure which soon told and created a sense of anxiety; each England player had at least one panicky moment in possession.

These were Premier League winners, European champions, £100m players being made to look like they had never encountered a competent press before. “We know we have good players – we know we can play better than we did the other day,” Southgate said on Wednesday, referring to the Serbia game. Now we know they can play considerably worse.


10) That was underlined by the Denmark goal. Kane dropped deep to receive a throw-in, controlling the ball and just hammering it aimlessly through the middle without really looking. It was intercepted and within one pass, Morten Hjulmand scored from range, having barely believed the space he had been allowed 30 yards out.

Four minutes later, Hjulmand was allowed to shoot again from a similar position with Jordan Pickford raging at the distinct lack of closing-down in front of him. For once, his fury at potentially being made to do his job was entirely justified because England were laughably slow in reacting to those situations: Hojbjerg and Hjulmand had seven shots between them, to Rice and Alexander-Arnold’s combined one.


11) Rice was terrible at times. There were flashes of the elite player within, especially when his high press fashioned a first-half shooting chance for Kane. But generally the Arsenal man drowned in that midfield and did little to help Alexander-Arnold fight the tide either.

After making no half-time changes, Southgate presumably hoped for more than a mere resumption of the mess which came before. Yet a matter of minutes into the second half Rice was pressed into rushing a pass back to Alexander-Arnold, who fizzed his return into the chasing Hjulmand’s legs before John Stones eventually switched the ball to the left flank. The only issue was that there was no England player within 20 yards of where it bounced.

When Rice, around the hour mark, collected another hurried pass from Pickford and played the ball out for a corner when trying to find Guehi, it felt like the performance of someone who would undoubtedly have been taken off if his team had literally any other example of midfield seniority.

Southgate must be cursing Pep Guardiola over Kalvin Phillips, and Jordan Henderson over Jordan Henderson. But the structural problems were so significant that both would have been fighting upstream too.


12) It was Rasmus Hojlund who forced that Rice mistake, being substituted straight after. He did not have a shot in 67 minutes but created two chances and showed some incredible work-rate which England struggled to deal with. His Manchester United career in a microcosm, basically.


13) “England are on the front foot,” said Guy Mowbray at one point around the hour mark, literally as Guehi nervously headed the ball back to Stones on the halfway line, who proceeded to launch it back to Pickford as Hojlund yet again led the Danish press.

That would have been funny enough in the context of “England are on the front foot”. But then Stones received the ball back and played it to Walker, whose pass was intercepted by Hojbjerg and the Manchester City defender subsequently fouled him to give Denmark a free-kick in a dangerous position.

It didn’t particularly feel as though England were on the front foot. Not then, nor really at any stage after the goal.


14) The substitution of Kane in the 70th minute was pointed. Even more so than taking Alexander-Arnold off about 15 minutes prior. It was a clear acknowledgement that things had gone really rather catastrophically wrong. Foden and Saka were not nearly as jarring in terms of changes; almost never does Southgate sacrifice his captain, goalscorer and talisman when a meaningful result is still at stake.

The speed with which Kane has become England’s new problem is astonishing, particularly not only after a game in which he scored their only goal, but during with a particularly excoriating half-time review from Rio Ferdinand.

Kane was not great and indeed bore the majority of the blame for the equaliser, but there are clear problems running through this team long before you reach a striker who either drops too deep or doesn’t press enough. His role at this tournament has ultimately been confused and chaotic and the responsibility for that can ultimately only fall on one man.


15) It is a similar story with Bellingham, who flitted between bad and downright anonymous throughout. One brilliant through ball to Ollie Watkins soon after the Aston Villa striker came on was a brief shot of inspiration from a player who otherwise offered almost nothing at either end.

He played a largely accidental part in the goal but was also culpable for the equaliser – one of many times he failed to sense the impending threat developing in front of him. There were many dud performances but Bellingham’s was perhaps the most stark and disappointing.


16) The best England player was probably Guehi and even then he almost cost them the game by losing the ball in the closing stages, then his man from the corner he did well to salvage. Tackled by Alexander Bah, Guehi recovered to put the ball behind but then inexplicably failed to notice the fairly tall Jannik Vestergaard had evaded his attention; the Leicester defender finished the chance like a Leicester defender.

Guehi was otherwise solid and that qualifying for praise speaks volumes.

His role in this side is far more “experimental” than Alexander-Arnold’s and a much greater success, which could embolden Southgate to make some necessary changes for the final group game.

The permutations for England qualification feel entirely secondary to the need to freshen things up and try something different. And as suboptimal as that is in tournament conditions, the current plan has clearly failed.

England made three changes to their starting line-up after the Algeria draw in 2010, prompting a massive improvement in the win over Slovenia which helped them out of the group.

“I know these players. They needed this victory. The victory will be important because I have always felt they can play against any team here and I now am sure the performance will always be at that level,” Capello added, as England famously cruised through the rest of the tournament.