Ken Early: Alexander-Arnold bluff catches Southgate cold in dour Denmark draw

Sticking with the Liverpool full-back in midfield suggested, falsely, that England’s manager knew why he picked him in the first place

Denmark's Morten Hjulmand scores his side's equaliser during the Euro 2024 match against England at the Frankfurt Arena. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Group C: Denmark 1 England 1

“It’s tough when you come to these grounds, hostile environments,” Kyle Walker explained in a post-match interview, gesturing towards the Frankfurt stands packed with England fans. England had just drawn 1-1 with Denmark and become the first team at these Euros to be booed off by their own supporters.

The England crowd were angry because they had just watched a performance of bone-jarring ineptitude which makes it very difficult to be optimistic about their prospects. The pattern of the game had followed a familiar pattern: England scoring first, then forgetting how to play football. It was the story of their World Cup semi-final against Croatia and their Euros final against Italy. After nearly eight years, shouldn’t Gareth Southgate have developed some ideas for how to respond in these situations?

Victor Kristiansen’s dozy mistake after 18 minutes let Walker in to set up Harry Kane for what should have been a nerve-settling goal. Instead it was Denmark who took control, equalising through Morten Hjulmand’s screamer on 32 minutes and dominating England throughout much of the rest of the game.

It was not entirely surprising to see this happen, after the way England had played against Serbia. England’s win there had disguised a pretty poor performance: Kane was hardly involved, Phil Foden was a shadow of his Manchester City self, the midfield combination of Declan Rice and Trent Alexander-Arnold was directionless and the team looked entirely paralysed down the left side, where Kieran Trippier offered absolutely nothing from left-back.


Southgate had gone with the same team he picked for the Serbia game, despite some calls for Alexander-Arnold to be dropped. That decision seemed to be saying: “I have the courage of my convictions. I believe Alexander-Arnold offers something important to the structure of this team. I believe this is worth persisting with.”

The early substitution showed that Southgate didn’t really have any such conviction. He didn’t really know why he wanted Alexander-Arnold in there, nor did he understand why it hadn’t worked the first time. The decision to keep him in the team was not far-sighted and wise, it was just an attempt to look that way. It was a bluff.

Alexander-Arnold’s last contribution was a lofted ball that Bukayo Saka initially struggled to control, then headed over Kasper Schmeichel and wide. It was his third key pass of the game, more than any other England player managed over 90 minutes.

Is it more humiliating to be substituted at half-time or to be hooked eight minutes into the second half? The first is pretty bad, but the second is basically the same, with the added suggestion that you’ve ignored whatever instructions you were given at half-time.

How can England play this bad with players this good?Opens in new window ]

“Trent isn’t a midfielder” screamed a million internet I-told-you-sos. To which you find yourself wondering - “and Conor Gallagher is?”

Alexander-Arnold’s unusual style and history of playing most of his career at right-back makes him a lightning rod for the anxiety watching this team makes the English feel.

Gallagher seems a safer bet to many people if only because he doesn’t have a history of playing at right-back. The question: now that Alexander-Arnold had picked up the initial tab for this terrible performance, would his replacement with a much less gifted footballer make England play any better?

The answer turned out to be no. It wasn’t Gallagher’s fault, of course. Not many players would manage to look good sent out into a shapeless, malfunctioning team armed with nothing more than some vague instructions to show some energy and get stuck in. Gallagher did at least do that - he was booked after eight minutes on the pitch and was lucky not to be sent off after 13.

England's Declan Rice played like a man who had heard James McClean's criticism of him. Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA Wire

Alongside him in midfield, Rice was producing the worst half he has played all season - as though he had heard that James McClean has been saying he’s overrated on RTÉ, and McClean had somehow, against all odds, got into his head. One can only imagine McClean’s delight during that second half as Rice repeatedly fell over, ran into opponents, lost the ball with heavy touches, or clubbed mishit passes out of play.

Desperate to do something to change the pattern of the game, Southgate made his second major intervention. He replaced his entire front three - off went Kane, Foden and Saka, on came Watkins, Eze and Bowen. This is the coaching equivalent of “have you tried switching it off and switching it back on again?” It was not the sort of call that will inspire confidence in Southgate’s insight among either the players or supporters. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Meanwhile Trippier, maybe the most nonexistent player of these Euros, completed another 90 minutes at left-back. England’s problematic left side is casting Southgate’s pre-tournament decisions in a pretty harsh light. Say what you like about the seasons Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford have just had, but both are highly experienced players who usually play on the left. Southgate left them both out in favour of players like Cole Palmer (a number 10), Eberechi Eze (another 10), Jarrod Bowen (a right-winger) and Ivan Toney (a non-playing 9).

On the positive side, England have four points and will be in the second round. If they stay as lucky as they were today, they have a great chance of going all the way.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer