After England’s incredible World Cup adventure, most expected the autumn would be a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show and back to Earth with a bump. It seemed to be heading that way after an opening Nations League defeat, but England rallied and end the year with a Nations League semi-final to look forward to and a team looking very close to the finished article.

On returning home, most were proud of England’s World Cup efforts but there were complaints from some, the most common criticism being England didn’t beat any good sides in Russia. That always felt incredibly disrespectful to Sweden and Colombia and it’s certainly hard to believe many countries would make similar criticism of their teams. Did the Germans complain when they made a final by beating Paraguay, USA and South Korea?

Four wins, one loss and an empty stadium

The feeling England were still a long way short of the best sides was underlined by the first game of the new season: a 2-1 loss at Wembley to Spain. England were outplayed for long spells that night but their persistence almost paid off when Danny Welbeck scored in injury time only to be denied for a supposed foul on the goalkeeper. England then played a reserve side against Switzerland and were fortunate to reach half-time goalless. But an improved second half display was capped by a Marcus Rashford goal and ended in a 1-0 win.

Unimpressed by the September performances, Southgate changed things up by adjusting the system to 4-3-3 and calling up the uncapped Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount, Nat Chalobah and James Maddison and recalling Ross Barkley. England played out a 0-0 draw  with Croatia behind closed doors before that stunning and possibly career defining 3-2 win over Spain in Betis.

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Sterling grabs a brace in Spain

November saw a routine win over a poor USA side which saw England say goodbye to Wayne Rooney with Jesse Lingard, Trent Alexander-Arnold and debutant Callum Wilson grabbing the goals. During that game news filtered through that Spain had lost to Croatia and the England vs Croatia game became a playoff to determine relegation from and a semi final spot in the Nations League. After falling behind early in the second half goals from Lingard and Harry Kane secured a famous 2-1 win and a place in Portugal next summer.

Squad Progress

England’s World Cup squad featured a strong first eleven but a lack of depth and options from the bench. The fact Southgate could summon Sancho, Lingard and Dele Alli from the bench to turn the Croatia game, illustrated England’s improved depth.

Looking in detail at England’s squad we’ve seen changes mostly for the better in each department of the team. In goal Jordan Pickford is now a country mile ahead of his rivals   and Jack Butland remains number 2 despite relegation to the Championship. Alex McCarthy made his debut having replaced the injured Nick Pope as number 3.

At right-back the change to a 4-3-3 saw Kyle Walker revert to fullback and it appears he Kieran Trippier and Alexander-Arnold are locked into a three into two battle. At left-back it’s been wholesale change as Ben Chilwell has impressively stepped up and started four straight games. Meanwhile Luke Shaw has pleasingly got his club career back on track and is battling Chilwell for the number 3 shirt. It means the inconsistent Danny Rose and veteran Ashley Young are now out of the squad.

In central defence Joe Gomez has returned to full fitness and proved he can play as a top class centre back and now battles John Stones and Harry Maguire for the starting central defence spots. The other centre backs appear some way back but Michael Keane returned after a good run with Everton and Lewis Dunk made his debut against the USA. Phil Jones has dropped out of contention whilst James Tarkowski remains in the background and Gary Cahill has called time on his England career.

In the midfield 3 there is now real competition for places with Eric Dier and Fabian Delph both showing improved form in defensive midfield although Jordan Henderson appears to have regressed. Harry Winks has made an impressive return after missing out through injury and Chalobah is on his way back. Meanwhile confusion reigns over the future of Declan Rice who seems likely to commit his future to England.

In attacking midfield Ross Barkley has made a welcome return after his excellent run of form at Chelsea whilst Alli impressed despite injury problems. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s future continues to draw comment and speculation as he hasn’t nailed a regular start with Chelsea. Maddison and Mount remain on the fringes and were unfortunate to miss the November games with injury, for now both seem likely to stay with the Under 21s alongside Phil Foden.

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Sancho is an exciting addition

The revised formation means a front three of Kane, Rashford and Sterling. Sancho and Lingard are the options off the bench out wide and it remains to be seen if Adam Lallana can play his way back into the squad. Behind Kane at number 9 the retirement of Jamie Vardy and Welbeck’s injury has opened the door with Wilson the first to step through, but Dominic’s Solanke and Calvert-Lewin remain on the manager’s radar. Aside from that central striking role behind Kane, England’s depth has hugely improved and Southgate faces several selection headaches for the summer trip to Portugal.

Tactical and stylistic progress

The switch in formation gave Southgate new options. Three at the back worked well until the World Cup semi-final but as Southgate pointed out England found themselves outnumbered in midfield. The solution was the 4-3-3 with one defensive midfielder dropping into back 3 when England have the ball allowing the fullbacks to push on. When England are out of possession the fullbacks fall back and the defensive midfielder pushes up. It’s also proved that Stones, Gomez and Maguire can all hold their own in a central defensive pair without the extra security of a third permanent centre back.

It’s worked so far with wins over both Croatia and Spain and it’s good to see an England manager prepared to evolve the system to suit the players available rather than stubbornly sticking to a system of play, something Fabio Capello, Graham Taylor and Sven-Goran Eriksson were all guilty of.

Southgate has preached England’s need to evolve their style into a more possession based style of play, three at the back proved a useful stepping stone in this but the loss to Spain in September showed England don’t yet have that Modric or Xavi tempo changing midfielder. Delph and Winks showed huge progress in providing better passing in midfield and there’s no doubt England are improving in possession, but this is clearly the area of the team where England aren’t quite there yet.

So a good 6 game stretch has sent England fans into the lengthy international break with increased optimism and high hopes for next summer, those who mocked England’s summer achievements have been firmly silenced and England’s stock has rarely been higher. March can’t come fast enough!

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