Mason Mount the one big positive for England as Italy deny Gareth Southgate once more

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 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

One of England’s very first Nations League games was played behind-closed-doors, against Croatia in Rijeka back in October 2018.

Then, it was the hosts being punished for - unfathomably - having a swastika marked on their pitch during a World Cup qualifier against Italy, and when the game ended in a goalless draw the general consensus was that it was impossible, perhaps even unfair, to draw any conclusions at all from a match played in such novel, eerie surrounds, a case of pack up and move on.

Events of the last few years mean we have all, unfortunately, now had plenty of practice, and as one of just four games left before England’s World Cup opener against Iran in November, this meeting with Italy was not one Gareth Southgate could afford to write off, for all it was played in front of only a few thousand enthusiastic schoolchildren as a result of the crowd trouble around last summer’s European Championship final against the same opposition.

This quartet of Nations League matches were earmarked as a chance for Southgate to fine-tune, but the defeat to Hungary and a draw in Germany had so far thrown up more questions than answers.

Here, Southgate handed rare starts to the likes of Fikayo Tomori, Aaron Ramsdale, Tammy Abraham and James Ward-Prowse, but if the Three Lions boss is in the market for solutions to his many headaches ahead of Qatar, then perhaps the first-half performance of Mason Mount, playing as a No10, offered the biggest positive takeaway.

Mount was deployed in the same role against Hungary last weekend and the experiment failed miserably, but against an Italian side with more attacking ambition, the Chelsea man found pockets of space far easier to come by and exploited them to good effect, with a series of sharp flicks and turns to both lead and launch England counter-attacks.

Out of possession, he continues to be the orchestrator of England’s press, an area where they are showing marked signs of improvement, stealing the ball high up the pitch on several occasions here, just as they had, mainly through Jude Bellingham, in Germany.

It has perhaps gone a tad underplayed just how much of a permanent fixture Mount has become in this England side, in an area of the pitch where competition is supposedly at its strongest. Since October 2020, the 23-year-old has started in all but three of the competitive games for which he has been available, the exceptions coming against Germany at the Euros, when he was only just out of Covid isolation, and in a pair of qualifiers against Andorra.

If Mount’s place in the team is something close to a given, then his position in it becomes the key point of debate. His latest trial as a No10 here was not an unqualified success, tailing off after half-time before he was replaced, but if Southgate can find a way to consistently unlock his talent in the role it will give him licence to unleash a third specialist attacker alongside Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.

The reliance on Kane remains

Harry Kane remains England’s only genuine goal threat (AFP via Getty Images)
Harry Kane remains England’s only genuine goal threat (AFP via Getty Images)

England were the better side in the aforementioned 0-0 draw in Croatia almost four years ago, hitting the woodwork twice in a game Southgate said afterwards his men ought to have won.

Though Italy themselves had chances, it was a similar story here, with Mount striking the crossbar, Abraham dallying in a promising position early on and Sterling skying over the bar from his usual back-post hot spot.

It was a reminder, as if anyone needed it, of this team’s overreliance on the goals of Kane, who Southgate attempted to rest here before turning to his captain midway through the second-half.

Now on 50 goals for his country, Kane will likely return to the starting lineup against Hungary on Tuesday night as he goes in pursuit of Wayne Rooney’s record of 53.

It is a matter of when, not if, he will surpass that mark, but if England are to go all the way in Qatar it will probably have to have been blown out of the water.

Reece James makes case for starting role

Reece James impressed amid a big battle for a starting role at right-back (The FA via Getty Images)
Reece James impressed amid a big battle for a starting role at right-back (The FA via Getty Images)

Along with the wide forward positions, right-back is the position in which Southgate is most blessed with talent, so it a touch peculiar that up until this game, none of his quarter of contenders were having a particularly good international break.

Trent Alexander-Arnold had again shown nothing like his Liverpool best when utilised at wing-back against Hungary, while Kyle Walker was given a torrid night by Jamal Musiala against the Germans.

Kieran Trippier, through no fault of his own, has been forced to deputise out of position at left-back, while Reece James had not yet had a chance to impress from the start but gave away the crucial penalty within minutes of his introduction in Budapest.

Afforded an opportunity to make some amends here, James seized it with a solid defensive display and very nearly made the winner for Sterling with a superb cross.

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