England are all-but guaranteed to be in Pot 1 among the top seeds for next month’s Euro 2024 draw – but there are still problems for Gareth Southgate to solve.
They have already achieved all that they set out to in the competitive games building up to next summer’s tournament ahead of their final group game against North Macedonia on Monday.
So, with this game a genuine dead rubber, the equivalent of an international friendly, what are the priorities for the England manager to assess over the coming 90 minutes?
Southgate says the priority is “performance levels”. After a lacklustre 2-0 victory over Malta at Wembley on Friday night, Southgate demands – and England need – an impressive result and performance to bookend the qualifying campaign, and the international calendar year, on a high.
The poor performances and results leading into Qatar when England went four matches without a win and were booed off the pitch at Molineux following a 4-0 home embarrassment against Hungary soured the mood.
England manager Gareth Southgate discusses his side’s performance against Malta in the Euro qualifiers and why his players seemed to be below their usual level
It even led to Southgate considering whether he still wanted to be in charge for the winter World Cup. He is determined to avoid anything like that happening again. The result of this game will linger for the next four months, until England play next.
For England to be considered a realistic contender for Euro 2024, they need to put a string of big results together, going into the tournament.
Friendlies against Brazil and Belgium, who are both in the world’s top four, at home in March will be the perfect barometer of England’s pedigree, but a tricky game away to North Macedonia in November, when the squad is lacking a number of key players, will set the tone.
The 7-0 drubbing that was primarily meted out by the feet of Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane in June was something of an anomaly. North Macedonia are no pushovers, as they proved in Euro qualifying – beating Malta twice, drawing with Italy and only narrowly losing to Ukraine after taking a 2-0 lead.
England manager Gareth Southgate reveals the latest injury news on Jarrod Bowen ahead of their Euro 2024 qualifier clash with North Macedonia
Of course, you would expect Southgate to say that a good performance is the priority. But in truth, he has some equally important questions to answer, during this game. What his options are at left-back, is among the most important.
With Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell injured before the squad was selected, and Kieran Trippier, the most regular debutant on the defensive left, withdrawing from the squad after Friday night, England are short in that position.
Southgate could opt, again, for Fikayo Tomori to play there, as he did for 45 minutes against Malta, before being replaced by Trippier at half-time. In truth, Tomori struggled. It is not a natural position for him. But Southgate may want to see him tested there again.
It would be a huge call to start Rico Lewis there, a player who has played left-back before in his fledgling career, but not for Manchester City.
Sky Sports News’ Rob Dorsett and football journalist Peter Smith reflect on England’s unconvincing 2-0 victory over Malta in Euro 2024 qualifying
He has only played 19 games in the Premier League in total, most of those in a defensive midfield role. To throw the 18-year-old into an England debut in a hostile environment and out of position would be the ultimate “sink or swim” international test.
Southgate says Marc Guehi can play there too and has done mid-game for his country in the past. But he is not left footed and is a natural centre-back.
It was interesting that Southgate did not include Saka among his left-back options. The Arsenal player started his career there at the Emirates but has graduated – with honours – in a much more advanced role, on the opposite flank. He is clearly no longer a left-back option for England.
With Shaw and Chilwell dogged by injuries in recent years, Southgate will want to try to nail down his back-up plan, should they be unavailable next summer. None of the alternatives are ideal.
Despite an unconvincing 2-0 win over Malta, Bukayo Saka is pleased that England moved ever closer to securing one of the top seeds at Euro 2024
Assuming Guehi does not shift to left-back which I don’t think he will, then expect Southgate to again test the Harry Maguire-Guehi central defensive partnership in Skopje. The two are beginning to show signs of a good understanding, and Guehi now looks like England’s natural understudy, should either Maguire or John Stones, as is the case here, be unavailable.
What to do in midfield if England’s best player, Jude Bellingham, is absent is another pertinent quandary.
Bellingham’s brilliance has turned this England squad from title pretenders into genuine title contenders, but there has to be a Plan B should the Real Madrid midfielder be injured come June.
Declan Rice will return to bring some much-needed class and control to England’s engine room, but which of Jordan Henderson, Conor Gallagher, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Lewis and Kalvin Phillips should join him?
The selection choices that are made in Skopje should tell us a lot about what the manager is thinking.
Dead-rubber this game might be. But for Southgate’s planning for next summer, it is absolutely fundamental.