England vs Bulgaria: Why response to Czech Republic defeat will answer greater questions than qualification

There’s been a lot of ‘self-reflection’ and a lot of ‘honesty’, now England must deliver a performance to silence doubts

Miguel Delaney
Monday 14 October 2019 07:17
Southgate accepts reality Czech in Prague and promises better in Bulgaria

In the days since that shudder of a defeat to the Czech Republic, Gareth Southgate has corralled his England players together, for what have been some frank meetings.

There’s been a lot of “self-reflection”, and a lot of “honesty”. They might not have got to Roy Keane levels - and Gareth Southgate later joked that he couldn’t imagine the Irishman being cutting - but there was an acceptance from the squad this was not the standard required. They now need to ensure it doesn’t become anything like the norm.

That is perhaps the biggest football question surrounding Monday’s match against Bulgaria, even beyond the prospect of qualification. England will be sure of their place at Euro 2020 if they win and Kosovo fail to beat Montenegro

Nevertheless, a game that had been seen as a formality is now a bid to rediscover form; to show the real England. There is now wonder, after all, about what exactly that is.

It was why Friday felt bigger than one defeat. It raised concerns over how close England are to the top level. It exposed flaws that better sides would punish when it really matters. It reflected issues in the very structure of the team, that have been building. It may even mean they have regressed.

Southgate was asked about all of this on the eve before the game, and insisted the players are fully aware of the need for a “response”. They badly want to give one.

That could be dangerous for what is a hugely limited Bulgaria side. Their coach and USA 94 hero Krassimir Balakov spoke of the need for the “spirit of 1993” - a reference to their shock last-minute winner in Paris that sent them to that World Cup at France’s expense - but emotion is pretty much the only thing they’ll be able to replicate from that great side. Bulgaria are possibly the weakest team in the group, and anything other than an England win would be a genuine shock, far greater than Friday.

Southgate’s players know this is about more than a win, though. It’s about a performance. He will have to change things to try and affect that, mind. Some - like the absence of Danny Rose - are forced. Others will be more instructive.

It feels unlikely that Southgate will go back to three at the back, and the suggestion from some close to the England camp was that the problems may have been more to with application - and a sense of “complacency” - than any major tactical flaws beyond the way Mason Mount was used.

Harry Kane and Harry Maguire react to defeat against Czech Republic

There is a feeling that, even unconsciously, the players weren’t quite on edge. All the talk of qualification may have played on their minds. They certainly looked caught cold by the intensity of the Czech running, and Southgate admitted that did surprise his players. He also admitted that the midfield formation “didn’t work” - albeit with a highly relevant caveat. “If we don't keep trying things, we'll never progress as a team.

The problem now is they have to ensure they don’t regress either, which is why they have to rediscover a bit of their verve against Bulgaria. They have to find the sharpness that made them look so genuinely good from October 2018 to March 2019.

Maybe that is a mental thing, but Southgate will also be looking to force it. What he does in midfield will be most instructive of all. England certainly need more poise there, but are missing most of their most technical players. It was quite the quirk, then, that much of the press conference was spent talking about the absence of one of the most technical in James Maddison. Southgate wasn’t going to get drawn into questions about the midfielder’s appearance at a casino, when he had pulled out of this squad with an illness.

It says much, meanwhile, that in itself forced the issue of racism down the agenda. It did of course come up in the game’s pre-match press conferences, given that 5,000 seats will be blocked off at Vasil Levski Stadion in punishment for precisely that, with Balakov adding to some of the controversy around it by saying England should looking at themselves.

Krasimir Balakov responds to England's concerns over racist abuse

“While there have been incidents in various levels of English football involving racism, which I consider something normal because it’s a big country with a very diverse population," he said. "But we don’t have this problem in Bulgaria, I can assure you of that.”

It did create the potential for a diplomatic incident, especially as Southgate was asked about those comments in an absolutely packed media room at the stadium, many Bulgarian journalists watching on intently.

He of course defused it, speaking as deftly as ever. This the thing with Balakov’s comment about England’s problem. It is something Southgate himself has said. He was just as aware of every angle here.

“We're guests in another country. I've always said we have as many issues in our country as anywhere else. We had to prepare our players because of what happened in Montenegro. We trust the authorities.”

The hope is there is no need to discuss it after the game. During that game itself, the aim for England is to respond to everything else in the best way possible: a performance, and one with any qualifications or caveats, that itself delivers qualification.

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