England: Slow start is no surprise but Gareth Southgate needs answers to Phil Foden question

England: Slow start is no surprise but Gareth Southgate needs answers to Phil Foden question

Relief was the overriding emotion for England and their supporters at the end of a largely forgettable night here in the soggy Arena AufSchalke.

England stumbled over the line - jaded and a little ragged, Kieran Trippier effectively admitting afterwards that he had resorted to a spot of professional time-wasting late on - to beat Serbia 1-0 in their Euro 2024 opener.

When Jude Bellingham, who was magnificent in the first half, stormed into the box to meet Bukayo Saka's deflected cross in the 13th minute for what turned out to be the winner, it was easy to imagine England were poised to steamroll the Serbians with a statement performance of their own, comparable to Germany's opening-night dismantling of Scotland or Spain's 3-0 win over Croatia.

Instead, it was a very different kind of victory, as Gareth Southgate's side ceded control in the second half, albeit while restricting their opponents to few chances.

Plainly, Southgate has issues to address if England are to be European champions on July 14 and the manager no longer has the luxury of time to fix them.

With so many players feeling their way into the team and tournament, England were never going to be at their best

That said, there were understandable reasons for England fading and Southgate can now fine-tune his side from a position of strength, with one foot effectively in the knockouts already.

As the manager pointed out afterwards, his XI was made up of players still getting up to speed after disrupted ends to the season or build-ups to the finals.

Trippier completed 90 minutes for the first time in four months, while Saka and Harry Kane, who both finished the season with injuries, are still working back to full speed.

Bellingham missed both England's warm-up games after a break to recover from the Champions League Final and John Stones has had injury and illness scares in the past week.

Luke Shaw is still to come in at left-back and England's spine was much-changed, with Marc Guehi, who was excellent on his first tournament appearance, filling the Harry Maguire-shaped hole at centre-half and Trent Alexander-Arnold starting in midfield.

Marc Guehi was excellent in his first tournament game (The FA via Getty Images)
Marc Guehi was excellent in his first tournament game (The FA via Getty Images)

With so many players feeling their way into the team and tournament, England were never likely to be at their best. In the circumstances, three points and a clean sheet should be celebrated, maintaining Southgate's superb record of winning all four opening games at major finals.

That is not to say there are no concerns for the manager to address back at the squad's leafy base in the Thuringia countryside.

Perhaps most pressingly, England's midfield question remains unresolved after a mixed performance by Alexander-Arnold next to the quietly outstanding Declan Rice.

Alexander-Arnold was eye-catching in possession, his raking diagonals and artful crosses so hard to defend, but it remains unclear if he has the positional discipline to marshall the midfield, and England were more convincing with the ball than without - which has rarely been the way under Southgate.

The Liverpool man lost the ball on the edge of his own box for Serbia's best chance of the first half, a fierce Aleksandar Mitrovic effort which whistled past the post, but underlined his own threat with a long-range strike which stung Predrag Rajković's palms.

Phil Foden, meanwhile, was subdued on the left of the front three, a shadow of the Premier League player of the year.

Southgate wants the Manchester City version of Foden, but how to get it?

While Rice has been asked to play a less expansive role for England than he does for his club, the same is not true for Foden; Southgate wants the Manchester City version of the playmaker, but how to get it?

The return of Shaw - possibly for England's third group game against Slovenia on June 25 - would surely help Foden, adding some natural width to the left flank, but the nagging question is whether Southgate can get the best from both Foden and Bellingham, who like to occupy similar spaces.

As Bellingham ran the game in a swashbuckling first half, Foden seemed somehow to shrink in stature and comparisons with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who were never able to be at their best in tandem for England, are irresistible.

Kane, too, appeared restricted by Bellingham's all-action start, finishing the first half with just two touches, but the captain's hold-up play was outstanding after the break and he was close to doubling the lead when Rajkovic turned his header onto the crossbar.

France have managed to get the best from Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, and Southgate must find a means of harnessing Bellingham's talismanic talent without restricting other players.

It is too early, though, to draw any lasting conclusions about England - positive or negative - and the upshot is that they have three points on the board and are well-placed to grow into the tournament.

England's opening game of the Qatar World Cup, a 6-2 thrashing of Iran, is no more memorable now than their cagey one-goal win over Croatia to kickstart Euro 2020.

What really matters for Southgate and his players is what follows.