England won their Euro 2024 opener against Serbia but they were far from convincing, particularly – and predictably – down their left side. So, what needs to change?

After one game at Euro 2024, England are top of Group C having overcome Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday night. Gareth Southgate’s men largely kept a tricky opponent at arm’s length and kept a clean sheet on their way to a 1-0 win that has set them up nicely for the rest of the group stage.

But such is the way in England when it comes to the national team, many have come away from the game with concerns about England’s left side.

On Sunday, Phil Foden started on the left flank with Kieran Trippier at left-back, and England struggled to make any inroads down that side of the pitch.

Foden is the first left-footed player to play on England’s left in a while, but he is by no means a winger who hugs the touchline. He is a number 10 who wants – and was clearly instructed – to move into central positions to get on the ball between the lines.

Trippier, meanwhile, is a right-back by trade and isn’t comfortable overlapping and attacking on his left foot. Neither, as a result, provided any attacking width down England’s left.

It meant that England struggled to break their opponents down. They had only five shots all night, worth a total of 0.52 expected goals, and most of their best work came down the right, where Bukayo Saka caused all kinds of problems and Kyle Walker added thrust from right-back.

Saka’s deflected cross set up Jude Bellingham’s goal, and both he and Walker put balls across the box that were unfortunate to elude every teammate.

Substitute right midfielder Jarrod Bowen later crossed in from the right for Harry Kane to head at goal, only for goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic to palm the ball onto the crossbar.

Meanwhile, Foden created just one chance, and that was a pass played from the centre of the pitch to an onrushing Trent Alexander-Arnold, who went on to drag a shot from distance well wide. It wasn’t exactly vintage Foden.

Phil Foden chance created vs Serbia

Trippier did not create any chances, and most of his contributions on the ball saw him pass the ball square or backward. All night, he was inclined to cut inside onto his right foot and play safe balls infield.

Kieran Trippier passes vs Serbia

That can’t only have been because he is right-footed, though. It certainly won’t have helped, but a player of his technical ability should be able to find passes down the line or into a forward in a central position with either his left or his right.

His pass map above suggests he scarcely attempted passes like that all night, though, and the ball was instead recycled just about every time an England move went down the left and reached Trippier.

Perhaps the options available to him weren’t good enough. Foden didn’t spend much time occupying the left flank so a ball down the line wasn’t regularly on; Trippier found Foden only six times all game.

Meanwhile, Harry Kane was marked incredibly aggressively by the Serbian defenders, so Trippier often opted against a ball into his feet, finding him only twice all night. The Bayern Munich forward was fouled six times across the 90 minutes – two more than any other player has been at Euro 2024 so far.

And although the plan is clearly for Bellingham to move out to the left flank consistently while Foden moves infield and Kane drops towards the ball, those rotations need work if they are to lead to progress up the field.

Trippier found Bellingham more times than anyone else on the night (11), but three of those passes were deep in England’s half, and of the eight in the opposition’s half, six were played back towards England’s goal.

Kieran Trippier passes to Jude Bellingham vs Serbia

Foden has plenty of experience playing on the left for Manchester City (although he has played there less and less as time has gone on), so playing him as England’s nominal left midfielder shouldn’t necessarily be a problem even if it isn’t his best position. After the season he has just had, with 39 goal involvements (27 goals, 12 assists) in 53 appearances for City, it makes sense that Southgate is intent on ensuring he is in the starting XI.

But Sunday night was far from his finest; he produced few moments of note, failing to muster a single shot or even an attempted dribble. It also didn’t help his cause that he misplaced what should have been an easy pass to Conor Gallagher as England broke up the field promisingly deep in the second half. That poor moment will stick in the fans’ memories far more than any of his 49 accurate passes or his hard work off the ball.

England’s uninspiring display in attack left some fans wondering if Southgate has made a mistake by leaving some players at home who are more comfortable on the left wing in the likes of Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford. Others have questioned whether Southgate is pinning too much hope on the injury-prone Luke Shaw as the only natural left-back in the squad.

Shaw hasn’t played a minute of first-team football since February, and even if Southgate is right in saying that the Manchester United full-back is in contention to play against Denmark on Thursday, he surely won’t be fit enough to play a full international tournament. If he can play, it will certainly help England progress up the left flank more fluidly and stretch the opposition with more width on that side.

But then again, Foden and Trippier are hardly a poor-quality pair to have on the left, and this was only one game. England won their opening group game of Euro 2020 1-0 against Croatia and grew into the tournament as it went on. And they put in a more coherent display against Serbia here than that day at Wembley three years ago.

There’s also an argument that there isn’t that much of an issue with focusing more of England’s attacks down the right. Arsenal almost won the Premier League last season with the most right-heavy attack in the Premier League; 40.8% of their attacking touches came down the right – a higher proportion than any other team in the division. When you have a player as talented and dangerous as Saka, it’s understandable that so much of your attack would go through him.

Arsenal attacking thirds

Arsenal do carry much more threat down their left than England did on Sunday, but this is international football, where there are always going to be more imperfections than at club level, where teams spend so much more time together.

It isn’t certain that throwing, say, Anthony Gordon in on the left would necessarily solve England’s problems. He would provide more natural width and direct running, but his ball retention is far worse than Foden’s and that side of his game proved invaluable on Sunday. The options on the left – Eberechi Eze, Cole Palmer and Ollie Watkins – would all be playing out of position.

Crucially, all of these alternatives would involve dropping Foden, which is understandably out of the question for Southgate. One other option would be to put Foden in the middle and either drop Bellingham or move him into a deeper position, neither of which make sense after his match-winning performance on Sunday.

It’s also worth nothing that this was a very solid defensive performance against a team whose attacking prowess should not be underestimated. Serbia were restricted to chances worth 0.18 xG, and had to wait until the 82nd minute for their first shot of the second half and their first shot on target of the game.

England got the job done in testing circumstances and have put themselves in a fantastic position to top the group. It’s certainly not time to panic about their left side just yet.

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