England shirt hangs heavily on Gareth Southgate’s edgy and frazzled team

<span>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>, <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> players even struggled to look like a cohesive unit in the pre-game photo.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>

How did this happen? The motif of the Gareth Southgate years has been the relative lightness of the England shirt and it has been well documented how the manager has gone about making it so; the cultural reboot, the relaxed and empathetic environment, the moves to seize control of the narrative. Having a host of top players helps, too. But all of a sudden, it has come to look awfully heavy again.

It is worth saying that England have four points from their opening two ties at Euro 2024. They have never won the opening pair of games at the tournament. They are on track to qualify as the winners of Group C. There have been calls for calm and positivity. “Nothing needs ripping up, there’s no need to panic,” Kieran Trippier said.

Nobody outside the England camp is listening to the stand-in left-back, whose milestone 50th cap in Thursday’s 1-1 draw against Denmark barely registered as the faultlines of the collective performance were pulled apart. Frankly, everyone is panicking.

Related: England players not fit enough to press effectively, claims Gareth Southgate

It was a return to the bad old days against Denmark, the players failing to master the emotion of the occasion, edgy to the point of frazzled in the face of the hopes and expectations of the fans; their own hopes and expectations. Where was the composure? As Southgate suggested and Declan Rice confirmed, the players were guilty of caring too much, which certainly reinforced the throwback feel.

Southgate’s stated goal is to win; it could be his farewell tournament if he does not. He has given the impression that anything less would be a disappointment and it was a line that Harry Kane pushed on the eve of the opening tie – the 1-0 win over Serbia on Sunday. The position is intended to motivate, to sharpen the focus. It is of a piece with Southgate’s open and proactive approach. So why does it feel like a burden?

It is easy to sense that the manager’s best intentions are having unintended consequences. From the moment he named his provisional squad on 21 May, he has been honest about his worries. That day, it was the lack of cover for Rice in the No 6 role; it was the question of who should play alongside him in midfield; it was the lack of a fit specialist left-back. (On that subject, Luke Shaw did not train outdoors on Friday.) Mainly, it has been the fitness problems: players fighting back from untimely injuries and lacking full matches in their legs, others overcooked after a gruelling season.

There is a value to Southgate making everyone aware of the challenges he faces. Understanding leads to perspective, sounder analysis. On the other hand, there is the dreaded notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

A theme for England has been the outside noise which was turned up after the Serbia performance. Southgate felt the need to address it with his squad on Tuesday night, to explain it to them, particularly the 13 players with no previous tournament experience. Does a manager have such a chat if there is no anxiety? Is there the danger of making them more conscious of it?

The strange thing was that the criticism post-Serbia did not seem excessive. There were searching questions about the balance of the midfield, what to do with Phil Foden, Kane’s involvement. It was standard and legitimate.

Moreover, Southgate’s starting XI, bar Marc Guéhi, were highly experienced. Apart from Marc Guéhi and Trent Alexander-Arnold, they had played at the previous Euros when England were the co-hosts, Wembley hosting all but one of England’s games. It does not get much hotter than that. What is clear is that the noise is louder now and the opinions of the former pros on TV are registering. They were not complimentary after Denmark.

Related: Harry Kane is England’s quick fix and key element to Gareth Supremacy | Barney Ronay

“There is probably more pressure now from the outside just because of the seasons some of our players have had,” Rice said, doing a few quick sums on the contributions of Kane, Foden, Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka. “If you look at the goals that our front four have scored, it’s over a hundred between them.

“There is expectation because they are the best players in the world and that goes for everyone throughout the team. There’s going to be that pressure. This is England, a major tournament. But this is our job and this is what we have to deal with.”

Southgate talked again about how it was a “different environment to anything else … I know that over the years”. And if the problems are psychological and physical, then there is the tactical dimension, too. All are linked.

The greatest single issue against Denmark was the failure of the England press. It lacked intensity, which Southgate attributed to the physical levels of his players. He added that “with the profile of players we’ve got, we don’t feel the way to press is really high up the pitch”.

Kane’s comments seemed to muddy the water. “When the teams drop a few players deeper we’re not sure who’s supposed to be pressing,” he said. “In the second half we tried to change with me and Jude playing in front of their two midfielders and then trying to get up. But it was difficult.”

Rice’s take was interesting. “When you’re a back four, us as a 4-2-3-1, and you’re playing against a 5-2-3, the way you press is going to be difficult because they always have an extra player at the back. We are outnumbered at that end whereas we have our extra man at our end.

“I watched France against Austria, and Portugal … they’ve changed to a back five. They’re mid-block teams. They’re not pressing full throttle. It’s about getting that balance of when we can press and when we cannot. If you don’t get your press right – it’s probably the most important thing on the pitch – you’re going to get picked off. You build everything out of your out-of-possession stuff. Then your in-possession stuff talks for itself.”

Southgate surely has to make changes, although a switch to a back five is unlikely. He has not trained in the formation so far in Germany. More likely are personnel switches, with Alexander-Arnold’s place in midfield most under threat for Tuesday’s final group game against Slovenia.

Southgate has talked about making new connections during the tournament, discovering solutions as he goes. There is still time and the mood could change with a positive performance. Right now, glory seems a long way away.