Gareth Southgate’s triple substitution was his boldest move yet but now he faces even bigger question

Southgate took off Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden all at once in the 1-1 draw with Denmark

Richard Jolly
in Frankfurt
Friday 21 June 2024 09:05 BST
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England must address their issues after Denmark draw, says Gareth Southgate

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Louise Thomas

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It was the first time Gareth Southgate had been England’s unlikely axeman by culling three attacking talents for about three weeks. If, at least, Marcus Rashford, James Maddison and Jack Grealish discovered on different days that they had not made the cut for Euro 2024, a trio at the front of the pecking order saw their numbers come up together. Unlike Rashford and Grealish, they had no warning.

Exit Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden when England needed a goal. The men taken off were England’s record scorer, their reigning player of the year and England’s new Footballer of the Year. It may have been the most dramatic triple substitution of the Southgate years. The surprise in a draw with Denmark was not simply how bad England were, but who finished the game in the attack: Jarrod Bowen, Ollie Watkins and Eberechi Eze could have comprised a serviceable but unexceptional mid-table Premier League forward line, at least until each had a breakthrough season.

Now they were sent on to source a breakthrough, to salvage a victory, to ensure England topped the group. None could.

A seismic substitution or one that will swiftly be irrelevant? Southgate presented it as a consequence of his superstars tiring, rather than firing a warning shot to them. There was nothing in his comments to suggest a changing of the guard, but then Southgate can act by stealth and some of the proof will come with the teamsheet against Slovenia.

But Kane, in particular, has seemed to enjoy protected status; he was rarely substituted when England needed to score. He can have the look of a man who is fatigued even when he isn’t. This time, however, Southgate said he was. “We just felt the whole front line put a lot of work into the game the other day,” he said. “He has only had one 90 minutes in the last five or six weeks, and it took a lot out of him. We felt to get speed in that front line and energy to press was important.”

Foden, meanwhile, had covered 13.2km in the Serbia game, even amid a performance that was criticised. Saka ended the season injured with Arsenal. He has begun each group game well but then faded. Kane got his goal against Denmark, dropped deeper than he had against Serbia and allowed others to run past him; for those who monitor his touch count, it was 22. More pertinently, he was nowhere near his best. As Foden played better than against Serbia, Jude Bellingham played worse. Arguably, individually none of the front four are at peak form or fitness. Collectively, the search for chemistry continues.

Gareth Southgate (right) talks to Harry Kane after removing the England captain
Gareth Southgate (right) talks to Harry Kane after removing the England captain (Getty Images)

There is a logic to sparing their legs. As the man of the match, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, noted, Southgate has enviable attacking options; they are reasons Grealish, Rashford and Maddison are not summering in Germany. The more instructive element is whether Southgate’s motivation was simply a search for freshness when a decider could have determined the group and facilitated wholesale changes against Slovenia. Beat Denmark and Kane et al could have had a day off.

But, on a day when England had precious little inspiration, was he casting around in desperation? He seemed as taken aback as anyone by how poor his side were. Perhaps he looked to the bench for a magic bullet, a saviour to rescue a poor display. Perhaps he thought the unthinkable.

“It is up to me to find better solutions,” he said. “We can’t be making any excuses for the level of the performance. We know the level has to be higher. The team didn’t function today and that is my responsibility.”

He has shown he will not shirk that responsibility for making decisions. Perhaps this was a dress rehearsal for a do-or-die game. Or maybe simply an attempt to keep fringe players involved but, when the stakes are highest, he will stick with his favoured four, whether semi-fit or struggling for form.

Kane tries to influence England from the bench after being subbed off
Kane tries to influence England from the bench after being subbed off (Getty Images)

Because the most infamous England substitutions have come with everything on the line: Sir Alf Ramsey’s decision to take off Bobby Charlton in the 1970 World Cup, Ron Greenwood’s to put a semi-fit Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking on 12 years later, Graham Taylor removing Gary Lineker in his final international and bringing on Alan Smith, or even Southgate using Rashford as a specialist penalty taker in the Euro 2020 final.

That was a case of Southgate’s best-laid plans backfiring. Now, with Harry Maguire out injured, Luke Shaw still not fit, Southgate lamenting the loss of Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson, they seem to be changing at worrying speed. But if the newer wingers he promoted to the squad were signs he could take off Foden and Saka at times, the sight of Kane trudging off prompted the question if England’s struggles will make Southgate abandon a key tenet of his blueprint: to never go without his captain.

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