Imbalanced England fail to match lofty expectations
England suffered a first qualifying defeat in ten years as the Czech Republic served them a timely reminder of improvements the Three Lions must make if they are to contend at Euro 2020.
Victory in Prague on Friday would have secured qualification for a tournament where England will enjoy home advantage for most of their games with London one of 12 host cities.
A 2-1 defeat is far from terminal for their chances of qualifying. Gareth Southgate's men have three more opportunities to get the job done and could do so as early as Monday with victory in Bulgaria if Kosovo also fail to beat Montenegro.
However, much more than mere qualification is expected of Southgate and a talented young crop of players, who have raised hopes they can end England's long wait to win a major tournament by reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup and Nations League over the past two years.
Both those semi-finals ended in defeat to Croatia and the Netherlands in similar circumstances and, worryingly for Southgate, England made the same mistakes against far more meagre opposition in a Czech team ranked 44th in the world.
In all three matches England took an early lead, but slowly lost control of the game in midfield before defensive failings resulted in 2-1 defeats.
Even a hitherto perfect start to qualifying as England scored 19 goals in winning their first four games in Group A has masked defensive problems.
Kosovo became the first side to score three times away in England in a qualifier for 12 years last month as the hosts edged an eight-goal thriller 5-3.
"It's clear we've got to improve without the ball," admitted Southgate.
Yet, the solution is not a simple one.
England appear to have much more strength in depth than when reaching the last four of the World Cup 15 months ago.
But there is an imbalance in the abundance of attacking talent available to Southgate and a paucity of defensive options.
Danny Rose, Michael Keane and Harry Maguire were named in the back four despite poor starts to the season at club level with Tottenham, Everton and Manchester United respectively.
"There are players who are not playing well for their clubs, but that is the situation we are in at the moment, certainly in a couple of positions," admitted Southgate.
Injury to John Stones and Joe Gomez falling down the pecking order at Liverpool has dried up options at centre-back.
But Southgate's decision not to start Leicester's Ben Chilwell and an in-form Champions League winner in Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold in the full-back positions was baffling.
"I always have to accept responsibility," added Southgate.
"We tried something to make ourselves more solid without the ball. That didn't happen."
Chilwell and Alexander-Arnold are expected to return in Bulgaria, but Southgate must also find the right balance in midfield.
The introduction of Mason Mount into an advanced midfield role left Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice outnumbered and overrun behind the Chelsea playmaker.
Saturday's back pages of the English newspapers were littered with the same headline: "Reality Czech".
"It came as a jolt to see them perform quite so badly," said The Times on England's performance.
"Three years into the job, he (Southgate) has to deal with expectations that England can, and should, be much better than this."
Southgate's good work has raised expectations, now he has to find the solutions to deliver on them.
© 2019 AFP