Qualification may be a formality for England but a 1-1 draw against Ukraine showed that Gareth Southgate’s team selection isn’t. The manager has a few issues to work out if they are to meet this great challenge to become trophy winners next summer. This match must still be framed by the fervour of the nominal home team, as an admirable Ukrainian side turned the fervour of the tens of thousands who travelled to the Wroclaw Stadium in Poland into a fine performance.
That raised this entire occasion way beyond a European Championship qualifier, and into something much more special, that often felt like a privilege to witness. The moment of Zinchenko’s opening goal was uplifting.
It is why England could perhaps be forgiven for getting caught a little cold in a game they would have seen as just one more step to an inevitable qualification. This was something else for Ukraine. It was a national event.
If Gareth Southgate is to turn Euro 2024 into a national event of England’s own, as he spent much of the build-up to the game talking about, he does have issues that this game highlighted. The formation didn’t work with these players. James Maddison was wasted on the flank, and he needs another role to really maximise Jude Bellingham.
The defence wasn’t exactly watertight, but that again might have had something to do with Ukraine’s rare impetus.
Southgate had actually spoken on the eve of the game about how qualification is rarely too testing for England these days, at least in terms of jeopardy, and one of the challenges is to keep the team sharp. Ukraine’s approach immediately helped with that.
Driven by the fervour of the crowd, and an emotionally stirring rendition of the national anthem, Sergei Rebrov’s side immediately went at England. There were extended periods where it was like Southgate’s players were unable to match Ukrainian intensity. England were struggling to keep the ball, with both ball-players in Bellingham and Maddison bundled over. The bumpy pitch didn’t help.
There was still an admirable sleekness to Ukraine’s opening goal, all clean lines and speed. Yukhym Konoplya surged down the flank, scorching England’s left side. The ball was cut back and, with bodies going in opposite directions, Zinchenko arrived to divert the ball past Jordan Pickford.
It was hard not to imagine what it will be like when this team finally get to play in Kyiv again. The noise was glorious.
England rarely rose to such levels. For one better move, the ball was worked to Maddison as he seemed to be set up to just run clear at goal, but his touch was poor and the chance was gone.
It perhaps reflected something more instructive about Southgate’s set-up. Maddison has excelled for Tottenham Hotspur this season playing much further back, as it allows him to do more damage. He was mostly just a wide player.
Part of the issue for Maddison, however, is something more fundamental to the team. It is also almost the reverse of his situation. Harry Kane willingly drops into the space that Maddison would usually occupy and so much of England’s attack revolves around that.
The Bayern Munich forward – that still takes some getting used to – proceeded to show precisely why that was the case. Just before half-time, he picked up the ball in that same area and lofted the ball over for Kyle Walker.
From what the wing-back did next, you wouldn’t have guessed it was his first international goal. Walker took the ball down, controlled it, and then fired past Georgiy Bushchan.
If the expectation might have been that would be the platform for England to assert their superiority, it didn’t play out like that. They did get on the ball more but Ukrainian robustness ensured that didn’t lead to much in terms of chances. The system wasn’t really working with these players in an attacking sense. It was little surprise that Southgate eventually took off Maddison and Bellingham, even if the latter is the future of the team. He was another not excelling in a slightly different role.
This can be one of the issues with Southgate’s England beyond any criticisms about conservatism. It is more a certain rigidity to positioning.
England will still be fixed in first position in the group of course. That shouldn’t be an issue. The objective is now something much greater, though.
This game, however, was all about something much more important for Ukraine.