Gareth Southgate squanders chance to identify Plan B beyond Harry Kane
On the night thousands of those in the Wembley crowd would have been planning to stay up until the early hours to watch the start of the latest season of the hit television show Succession, Gareth Southgate missed a chance to carry out some forward planning of his own.
Harry Kane is the undisputed patriarch of this England team and he celebrated being presented with a golden boot for becoming the country’s record scorer by bagging yet another goal. But are we any closer to knowing what happens, God forbid, if the head of Southgate’s family is ever unavailable?
Nobody would have denied Kane his moment at Wembley, but having marked his achievement in Italy by receiving the acclaim of the home England fans for taking his international tally to 55 against Ukraine, the 29-year-old should not have reappeared for the second half.
Southgate had a full 45 minutes to look at Ivan Toney and give the Brentford striker a proper chance to feel what it is like leading the line for England at a packed Wembley in a competitive game, but he chose to give him just over 10 minutes, including time added on for stoppages.
It was an international debut for Toney on his second England call-up, but there must have been a sense of regret and frustration that he got so little time on the pitch. There also remains the issue of how long he might be banned for after admitting breaches of betting rules.
Toney is a man in form. He is third only to Erling Haaland and Kane in the list of top Premier League goalscorers this season and the Football Association’s social media channels suggested he has been in good form in England training, posting clips of him scoring from crosses.
But Toney barely had the chance to touch the ball during his short run-out and the second half of a match England had won in the first 45 minutes finished as a non-event. Kane’s 81 minutes took his total minutes played under Southgate to 5,307, which is 442 more than his closest competitor, Harry Maguire. All of them have been merited, but not necessarily required.
What must the next generation of strikers think? We might already know, given that 21-year-old Folarin Balagoun, who has been so impressive on loan at Reims from Arsenal and scored seven goals in 13 under-21 appearances, is said to be considering switching his international allegiance to the United States.
Southgate has highlighted the lack of English talent available to him, but he is not giving much encouragement to the nation’s strikers beneath Kane.
Jamie Vardy got so fed up with being Kane’s benchwarmer that he gave up playing for England after the World Cup in Russia and since his retirement Southgate has not given a striker a chance to make themself the captain’s deputy.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin looked like he might make himself Kane’s number two for a while and it was the Everton man who took a place in Southgate’s squad for the last European Championships.
The 26-year-old’s record of four goals in 11 England appearances was encouraging, but a terrible run of injuries and loss of form have relegated him right back down the pecking order and Calvert-Lewin has not played for his country since the 4-0 victory over Ukraine in the Euros two years ago.
Callum Wilson’s England career has been stop-start. He made a goalscoring debut all the way back in 2018, but it took the Newcastle United man almost a year to make his second appearance under Southgate.
Like Calvert-Lewin, Wilson’s progress has been held up by injuries. He was not part of the last Euros squad and did not play any of the World Cup qualifiers before making a late run into the squad for Qatar.
Wilson made impressive cameo appearances as a substitute at the World Cup, most notably setting up Jack Grealish for a goal against Iran, but he has again suffered injuries since the tournament that ruled him out of contention for these Italy and Ukraine games.
Southgate has so many options available in the wide areas that he has previously claimed that Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling can fill in through the middle if needed.
Rashford is enjoying a superb season with his club, but Southgate pointed out himself that he cannot rely on the Manchester United star’s availability after he was forced to pull out of another England squad through injury. He has missed five of the last six non-tournament squads.
Sterling, too, missed the Italy and Ukraine games through injury and will return to find competition for his England place in Southgate’s squad tougher than ever.
So what of the other options? Ollie Watkins, who has scored twice in seven appearances for England but missed out on the World Cup squad, has been in fine form for Aston Villa but was not selected by Southgate for these opening European Championship qualifying games.
Watkins will still feel he is close to Southgate’s squad, if not his team, but Tammy Abraham has some ground to make up at Roma thanks to an indifferent campaign with the Italians in which he has scored just seven goals.
But it is hard to know exactly what those jostling for the position as Kane’s deputy are competing for. The only sort of Succession plans available to those inside Wembley came via the evening’s television listings.