Scotland vs England: Refusal to experiment in rare friendly would be a missed opportunity for Gareth Southgate

Scotland vs England: Refusal to experiment in rare friendly would be a missed opportunity for Gareth Southgate

Harry Kane needled some Tottenham supporters last week when he described feeling “a different pressure” at Bayern Munich.

Speaking ahead of England’s draw with Ukraine, Kane explained that “it wasn’t a disaster” for Spurs to go two games without winning, but at his new club, the perennial Bundesliga champions, even a comfortable win was deemed unacceptable if the performance was not up to scratch.

Kane could easily have added that the same scrutiny also applies to England, who are under a degree of pressure to avoid back-to-back games without a win in tonight’s friendly against Scotland at Hampden Park.

Gareth Southgate’s side were positively breezing through European Championship qualifying with four consecutive wins, including over Italy in Naples, before a first blip against Ukraine prompted all the familiar grumblings with the manager to resurface: Southgate is too negative, too unwilling to experiment, too loyal to senior players, too slow to react in games.

“We kind of know the cycle frankly with England,” Southgate said here about the reaction to Saturday’s 1-1 draw. “I’ve been in the job long enough now. It’s constant, never ending.”

Southgate is not unduly concerned by the point in Wroclaw, particularly given how much the occasion meant to the Ukrainians and Italy’s subsequent stumble against North Macedonia, but he will know that failing to respond tonight would increase the noise tenfold.

Matches against Scotland always matter more, and Steve Clarke’s side are flying: if qualifying results in their group go their way this evening, they could become the first nation to book their place in Germany next summer.

The England manager has, therefore, ruled out wholesale changes to his XI, insisting it would be “ridiculous” to “overly experiment”.

“We’ve got to find the right balance of physical freshness — we’ve had a day less preparation — experience, finding out about some players, winning, playing well, the usual things that are expected of us with England, really,” he said. “But the first thing is we can’t fiddle around with the team, because we’re playing a top-level side who will be at it full tilt. We’ve got to compete. We’ll get rolled over if we don’t.”

Southgate’s comments are hardly a surprise, given his inherent conservatism, but they will be dispiriting to supporters who want this England team to evolve in the build-up to the Euros.

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

There is a growing clamour, for example, for Southgate to ditch Jordan Henderson and add another creative player, most likely Phil Foden or James Maddison, to his midfield three, though in Foden’s case the manager has already dismissed the prospect, saying he does not play there for Manchester City.

There is also a compelling case to finally drop Harry Maguire and begin assessing new potential partners for John Stones at centre-half, though the Manchester United defender is expected to keep his place tonight, Southgate’s faith in him still seemingly unwavering.

For Southgate’s impatient critics, the question is: if not now, when? Tonight’s match is England’s first friendly in 18 months. In between, they played 16 consecutive competitive matches, including a World Cup, understandably leaving Southgate with limited opportunities to experiment.

The advent of the Nations League means international friendlies are now few and far between; good for fans who find them a drag but bad for managers looking for an opportunity to try something new.

In that context, tonight’s friendly — which is being played to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first meeting between the nations — is a rare chance to see what works and what does not against a quality opponent and in a ferocious atmosphere.

With the Euros nine months away, Southgate may already be in tournament-mode

International football is not the same as the club game, so how will Southgate know that Foden cannot be trusted to play in the middle if he does not give it a go?

With Henderson at risk of fading into semi-retirement in Saudi Arabia and Kalvin Phillips, who is expected to feature tonight, still being overlooked at City, why not try Foden in an exciting new role, where he has said he wants to play, or Maddison, who is playing as a midfielder for Spurs? And surely there is merit in blooding other defenders, given the risk that Maguire keeps rotting at Old Trafford between now and next summer?

After tonight, England’s next match is another friendly, against Australia at Wembley on October 13, while they are set to have two more in the March international break, assuming they wrap up Euros qualification as group winners.

Perhaps Southgate will experiment on those occasions, but it seems unlikely — and it is hard to shake the feeling that with the Euros now nine months away, the England manager is already in tournament-mode and sticking with the players who will prominently feature next summer.

Fair enough, perhaps. Meetings with Scotland are rare enough these days to really matter, but so, too, are opportunities to experiment in international football.