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How can England play this bad with players this good?

Jude Bellingham’s goal the difference between the sides as England hold on to beat Serbia

Jude Bellingham with England manager Gareth Southgate. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Euro 2024: England 1 Serbia 0

England are off to a winning start but the question they left hanging in the air at the Schalke Arena: how can you play this badly with players this good?

Their winning goal in this, the lowest-scoring game of the Euros so far, showcased the awesome ability of Jude Bellingham, the player who has convinced many that England’s trophy drought will end in Germany.

The move started when Kyle Walker played a clever Manchester City-type ball into the channel between Serbia’s left wing-back Fillip Kostic and left centre-back Strahinja Pavlovic. Saka, intelligently anticipating, caught Kostic facing the wrong way and his cross was partially blocked by Pavlovic. Sadly for Serbia, the deflection turned it into an inviting floater across the six yard line.

Bellingham had been level with the ball when Walker played the initial pass, about 30 yards from goal. He started running at that moment and arrived a couple of seconds later with unstoppable momentum to score with a flying header, postering the 6′2″ centre-back Milos Veljkovic in the process.

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There were 13 minutes on the clock. Germany had got off to a similar flying start against Scotland on Friday, and Spain had blown Croatia away with three goals inside the first half on Saturday. England, though, proved unable to follow the lead of these other powers by capitalising on the early advantage.

Gareth Southgate had selected the team everyone expected, with Trent Alexander-Arnold partnering Declan Rice at the base of midfield and Kieran Trippier deputising for the injured Luke Shaw at left-back. It was clear that they had the idea this system was going to be quite fluid - inside two minutes there was a moment when Bellingham, Foden, Saka and Alexander-Arnold were all on England’s right wing.

In the first half England stroked the ball around but with little sense of urgency or penetration. They exuded a kind of false calm, as though they were telling themselves to stay cool and patient, and with the result that they were wooden and unnatural. For all the superiority in possession, they were not opening Serbia up.

It was interesting to compare their build-up play to the approach Germany used to destroy Scotland on Friday night. Germany started their moves in their own half, with the playmaker Toni Kroos retreating to a position on the left of his centre-backs to get the ball at the start of moves. This gave Scotland a dilemma: if they wanted to press him there, they had to come forward, leaving space in behind; If they didn’t, he had all the time he needed to pick out team-mates in wide positions who could then cause problems of their own.

At all times Germany were focused on stretching Scotland out from back to front to create space nearer the goal for their skilful attackers to do damage. England, by contrast, generally started their build-up play inside Serbia’s half. Alexander-Arnold and Rice were getting the ball twenty yards further forward than Kroos, and when they did, they were faced with a phalanx of defenders in good positions. The wide players were pushed high up the pitch and tightly marked. There was nothing to bait the Serbs out of their defensive positions.

The English midfielders ended up rolling sideways passes to each other. At least they had the individual ability of Saka on the right, where he clearly had the beating of Kostic. His run made the first goal and he created a similar chance later in the half, his low cross fizzing behind Harry Kane.

England's Harry Kane. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

The really interesting thing was what was happening to Kane. There were 37 minutes on the clock when that Saka cross flashed behind him. At that point, the England captain had only touched the ball once in the game - and that was when it spun to him by accident after deflecting off Bellingham in a tackle.

Kane would finish the half with two touches. England’s set-up had somehow managed to mark their own centre-forward out of the game. They don’t teach that in coaching college. How had England achieved this? The issue had to do with how Gareth Southgate resolved the dilemma of fitting his two brilliant 10s, Foden and Bellingham, into the same team when they both like to occupy the same areas. His solution was to push Kieran Trippier up onto the left wing when England had the ball, with the nominal left-winger Foden drifting into the middle in the hope of creating the lethal combinations we see so often at Manchester City.

The effect - presumably unintentional - was to completely block Harry Kane from any involvement in the game. Foden was occupying the areas outside the box that Kane likes to drop into, and tended to soak up passes that might otherwise have been directed to the centre-forward. Meanwhile Trippier was offering zero threat from the left wing. As the game wore on, you wondered why this out-of-position right-footed wing-back was playing as England’s most advanced attacker on the left. Since there was hardly any defending to be done, maybe Anthony Gordon could at least have provided a one-against-one threat?

The Serb fans started to boom out a call-and-response: “Kosovo-SERBIA! Kosovo-SERBIA”. Their team, aided by England’s listlessness, were having plenty of possession, and Trippier eventually was called to defend just after the hour. Serbia suddenly attacked down the left and Mitrovic looked like he would be first to a cross at the near post - until Trippier barged him over from behind. The referee was merciful.

England’s third chance came when Trent Alexander-Arnold got away down the right and rolled it inside to Bellingham, who evaded the first tackle but not the second. The fourth and final chance was created by substitute Jarrod Bowen with another right-wing cross to Kane. England’s opponents will have noted that they only seem to have one way of creating chances.

Gareth Southgate made his first substitution at 69 minutes and it was no surprise to see Alexander-Arnold’s number go up. Much of the analysis will focus on the failure of his ‘audition’ in central midfield: he created only one half-chance for his own team, and also one for Serbia after losing possession with a bad touch. But England’s structural problems go much deeper than one player.