Confused and timid: England journey through the past at Euro 2024

<span>Gareth Southgate looks on as <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:England;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">England</a> labour against <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Denmark;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Denmark</a> in Frankfurt.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>

The longer England’s malaise goes on, the more this begins to feel like a weird mesh of previous tournament disasters. After almost a decade of positive vibes and considered, thoughtful management under Gareth Southgate, the end is threatening to unravel in a way that was supposed to have been consigned to the past.

Never before have England looked so dysfunctional and misshapen under Southgate. Watching them labour to their 1-1 draw with Denmark at the Frankfurt Arena, it was hard not to conclude that it could have been Sven Göran-Eriksson, Fabio Capello or Roy Hodgson in the dugout. The only difference, perhaps, was that Sven’s “first half good, second half not so good” line did not even apply to this display. Confused, timid and exhausted, England were second best long before half-time.

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Perhaps the one saving grace is that loyalty to Southgate makes a repeat of the John Terry-style mutiny from the 2010 World Cup unlikely. Otherwise, though, this is a journey through past flops. It could be something out of the 2002 World Cup, when Eriksson paid for his reliance on the unfit David Beckham. It could be the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when an injured Wayne Rooney erupted and the supposed “golden generation” struggled to break from their 4-4-2 cage. There is the fear and stodginess of Capello’s 2010 effort and the oddity of Hodgson in 2014 and 2016, when a cautious manager set aside his conservatism and crammed in too many attackers.

England were meant to have become more clinical. Instead Southgate, having spent much of his time in charge being driven by process, appears to be making things up as he goes along. He is reaching for solutions and control is slipping away. England remain likely to win Group C, but they are not ready for a difficult knockout match.

Southgate is culpable. Some circumstances have gone against him – Luke Shaw’s injury, Harry Maguire’s absence, the decline of Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips – but managers have to adapt. Southgate has met the challenge by making England less than the sum of their parts.

Harry Kane has been neutered. The midfield is all over the place. Phil Foden is ineffective on the left flank. Actually, there is no left flank. It is an incredible oversight by Southgate. Shaw has not played since February. His replacement, the 33-year-old Kieran Trippier, is right-footed and out of form. What is the plan here? Trippier never opens up his body when he receives a pass and the imbalance was obvious during England’s warm-up match against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Rather than minimise that point of weakness, though, Southgate has exacerbated it not just by putting Foden on the left-wing but also by omitting Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling. England, once so direct and dangerous on the break, look utterly ponderous because of Southgate’s decisions.

Yes, there was something refreshing about the ruthlessness of punishing big names for losing form. The problem, though, is with what has followed. England lack conviction. The goal threat offered by Sterling, who had an underrated season for Chelsea, has not been replaced.

Foden, for all his talent, is not going to work on the left if Shaw is not playing. There is no width, no unpredictability. Rashford, while frustrating for Manchester United, would have worried a full-back with his speed. Ultimately, ditching both him and Sterling is beginning to look like overkill, especially as their replacements have not been bedded in properly. Eberechi Eze, Cole Palmer, Jarrod Bowen and Anthony Gordon are new to this. They have barely played for England. Southgate had to be sure when picking them instead of Sterling, Rashford and Jack Grealish.

Related: ‘Absolutely awful’: England fans in Frankfurt react to Denmark draw

But, in a development that feels very out of character, he is gambling. The answer to losing Henderson and Phillips – apparently the only midfielder who could possibly make Southgate’s system work – is to experiment in a tournament with Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has quickly fallen into the trap of thinking that the big pass is the right pass. But maybe, just maybe, England would be better with a midfielder in midfield. Or, indeed, a left-back at left-back.

Shaw has always been vulnerable and Ben Chilwell, for so long the next in line, has also struggled physically. Why, with a squad of 26 at his disposal, has Southgate not brought in Crystal Palace’s Tyrick Mitchell? Why are punts in midfield and attack allowed but not in a position as crucial as full-back?

It is confusion. And worryingly, despite all the gushing about the luxury of the team’s Blankenhain base, the mood seems off. Southgate cannot stop talking about the squad’s physical issues, while in recent days there has been talk of pressure, hints of a siege mentality, signs of that shirt feeling heavy again.

We have seen this film before. The draw could be kind and England should have enough quality to reach the latter stages. Then, unless something changes, there will be the usual premature triumphalism before a likely quarter-final against Italy.

It never ends well. Just like against Portugal in 2006 and Germany in 2010, Italy will see this England team coming. Italy will be too structured. They may lack stars but they will know how to pass to each other – and if that is how it ends, the charge that Southgate is too limited a coach to make the most of his attacking talents will be impossible for the Football Association to ignore. It would be time up.