England edge Poland but Stones’ latest mistake won’t help quell Southgate’s defensive concerns

John Stones has already tested Gareth Southgate’s patience and he is about to do so again.

The 26-year-old is hoping to allay fears that he is still making mistakes after being recalled to the England national team following an excellent performance at Manchester City. Despite this, he is, along with Harry Maguire, England’s favourite for the Euro 2020 opener against Croatia, but as in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Poland, he will have to be called upon at crucial moments.

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It’s important to remember that Southgate won’t see his latest mistake in isolation. England were knocked out of the 2019 Nations League semi-finals after a similar mistake against the Netherlands – an addition to the list – and although Stones survived to earn another call-up, he was left out of the squad for 16 months as he lost his interest at City.

Pep Guardiola is on course to recapture the Premier League title, thanks in no small part to Stones’ remarkable resurgence. The central defender also made up for some of the damage he had done at Wembley Stadium with a goal in the 85th minute. A Phil Foden corner was cleared in the second minute and Harry Maguire fired into the roof of the net to save England.

All players will make mistakes during games and sometimes they will be punished, sometimes not. What you’re looking for is that reaction and see how they respond. It would have been easy to collapse at times like this, but John didn’t. His reaction was a major factor in keeping us in the game, and it was important that the whole team showed that reaction.

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He’s had a good season, and he made a mistake tonight, he knows that, but he came back as the game went on, and he needs to keep doing that.

But Southgate is already concerned about the fragility of England’s defence – which is why he opted for a 3-5-2 system at the 2018 World Cup and has since explained his use of the 3-4-2-1 shape on a number of occasions – and Stones offering Poland the equaliser will do nothing to alleviate those concerns.

After intercepting the ball from goalkeeper Nick Pope, Stones turned and hit the ball hard, allowing Jakub Moder to pick the ball up. Substitute Arkadiusz Milik passed back to Moder, who fired the equalizer past Pope.

England deserve credit for finding a way to win, but just as they needed a net to win – their reliance on the ball of death situation was almost excessive in Russia – they needed a soft penalty to take the lead in the first place. Raheem Sterling entered the penalty area and went down after minimal contact with Michal Helik. Kane converted the penalty kick in the 19th minute. Minute of his goal for England in the 34th.

Despite lively attacking play – Foden, Mason Mount and Kane combined excellently on more than one occasion – England failed to convert their first-half dominance into goals.

John Stones’ latest mistake won’t help him secure a starting spot at Euro 2020, but he deserves credit for his response to get a good result. Photo: ANDY RAIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

And while Poland, encouraged by the equalizer, got better and better, England worked. Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland have an eye for detail in all areas, so it was surprising to see them have a long conversation in the second half when the game threatened to slip away from them, seemingly suffering from inertia.

It’s tempting to think that this might have happened if Robert Lewandowski had played. With the Bayern Munich striker out with a knee injury, Poland missed chances to take advantage of better ball possession.

England was getting a little tired. Ten of those players were also in the game against Albania on Sunday, which was won 2-0, and it showed. The return of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish will improve Southgate’s options, but he has not used Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Jesse Lingard, Olly Watkins or Jude Bellingham when the team needs energy.

The England manager has some tough decisions to make. As such, knowledge management will be more important than ever this summer, given the accumulated fatigue from compressed internal planning due to COWID-19. England have generally struggled with fatigue in the second half of the tournament. Former Three Lions coach Sven-Goran Eriksson put it succinctly: First half good, second half not so good.

Southgate and Holland have drawn up a specific plan to counter the phenomenon in the run-up to Russia – giving players a day off as part of a graduated strategy, depending on when the player’s commitment to their club ends – but there are only three weeks between the final day of play in the Premier League and England’s first match. Participation in the finals of the Champions League and Europa League will further narrow the gap.

We’ll keep looking for it. That they will leave is, of course, highly unlikely. But I think they need rest, Southgate said when asked about his preparation for the European Championships…..

Psychologically, they would need this rest. Of course, under normal circumstances, there are five or six offensive players that we can use to improve the team [over the course of three games]. Even though 45 minutes in the first game seems like nothing, all these things have an effect by the end of the third.

We knew these qualifications were important, we had to move forward. We have given the players as much rest as possible, but in the summer we will have more opportunities to freshen up during games and make the changes that will allow us to rotate the squad a bit more. That would be the key.

It’s easy to look inward only when discussing England’s shortcomings, given their hunger for success, but Germany provided important context on the same night by losing 2-1 at home to North Macedonia. England avoided a similar humiliation last week by finishing first in Group 1 of World Cup qualifying with two points against San Marino, Albania and Poland.

But Southgate will not be condemned on this issue. Instead, England must build on the progress it has undoubtedly made, and the most important thing will be to find a defence capable of meeting tougher challenges.

The debate over his first choice continues: Ben Chilwell has been selected ahead of Luke Shaw, Kyle Walker replaces Reece James, Kieran Tripper is an unused substitute and Trent Alexander-Arnold is not taking part in the debate at all. The central defence isn’t defined yet either, and this close to the final is really not ideal.

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