Play Jude Bellingham, keep the ball better and coax the best from gifted playmakers - how England can go one step further in 2022

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When Gareth Southgate has finally caught up on sleep and allowed some of the pain to subside, he might that reflect that only minor adjustments are needed for England to challenge again at the next major tournament.

Another benefit of a delayed European Championship is just a 17-month wait until Qatar 2022 and the chance for England to erase the hurt of Sunday’s final and show they have learned from their shortcomings against Italy.

Southgate has said he wants to remain in charge for next year’s tournament, which begins in less than 500 days in November 2022, and he will be focused on tweaks of structure and style, rather than the type of root-and-branch review that has routinely followed previous big tournaments.

Of Southgate’s youthful Euros squad, only Jordan Henderson, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier, who are all (just) the wrong side of 30, are at risk of being phased out on age grounds, although their performances this summer suggest they should remain in contention for Qatar.

“All of this team can go again, but the young ones are still two to four years from peaking,” Southgate said ­yesterday.

The manager’s post-mortem of ­Sunday’s defeat has already begun and he is examining why his side suffered from familiar failings, as they squandered another lead by retreating and ceding possession to Roberto Mancini’s spiky technicians.

The FA’s 10-year plan — which, after all, was supposed to peak in Qatar — has long envisioned a national side who can take control of the midfield, as Italy did once they had reorientated to England’s wing-backs.

The excellent Marco Verratti and ­Jorginho, ably assisted by Nicolo Barella, soon began weaving patterns and creating angles, leaving England chasing shadows. Italy dominated the ball, finishing with 65 per cent possession and 755 completed passes to England’s 341.

It was all a familiar experience for Southgate’s side, who were worn down by Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in the World Cup semi-final three years ago.

Watch: What we learned from England's defeat to Italy at Euro 2020

Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips formed a supreme midfield partnership at the Euros, with Rice producing the performance of his life on Sunday, but surely one of Southgate’s principal aims will be to fully integrate 18-year-old Jude Bellingham ahead of the Qatar World Cup.

If England are to follow the blueprint for midfield domination — also illustrated this summer by Spain, who have their own teen sensation in Pedri — then Bellingham has the ability and physique to add much-needed dynamism and control to the middle of the park. 

The addition of Bellingham would also give England a more adventurous feel, with Rice and Phillips primarily holding players, even if the latter was surprisingly effective going forward during the Euros.

Liverpool’s Curtis Jones and Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe are among the other midfielders attracting Southgate’s interest and could come into senior contention in September.

Gary Lineker is among those to have called for Southgate to be more “attack-minded” and “release [England’s] ­talent”, and establishing an identity which is about more than controlled caution is another challenge. “That has to be the aim,” Southgate acknowledged yesterday.

“I think some of those players are not yet at that point of their evolution to be cemented in the team and I think also there were so many things that were uncertain in terms of being able to embed one way of playing [because of] the injuries we came in with and the availability that we came in with.” 

Finding the right combinations in attack feels key, after England’s forwards were quickly neutralised by Italy’s revered stalwarts at centre-half.

Before the tournament, at least one of Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish was expected to steal the show, but Southgate did not coax the very best from any of his gifted playmakers and the result was occasionally a staid threat in the final third — the thrashing of Ukraine aside.

Finding a genuine alternative or partner for Harry Kane would also increase England’s bite, with Mason Greenwood, 19, another teenage gem expected to be central in Qatar.

Liverpool pair Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold are likely to come back into contention for a defence that needs few adjustments after conceding just twice at the Euros, while Ben White will surely be prominent in future, particularly if he seals a big move.

England have made a strong start to World Cup qualifying, winning their first three games in March, and Southgate’s side face a tough examination in September’s triple-header, with games in Hungary and Poland, either side of Andorra’s visit to Wembley.

The manager will want to waste no time in beginning to fine-tune his set-up as England look to ride the wave of the Euros and ensure it was just a stepping stone to glory.

Watch: Watch England fans clash with police outside Wembley

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