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Five talking points from England’s victory over Serbia

England tend to be one of international football’s most talked-about nations.

For decades, they have had a huge weight of expectation around them, yet remain with just one major trophy in their cabinet.

The pressure on the Three Lions is always massive, and this year is no exception. Boasting several of the world’s finest players, many are demanding success this time around.

Gareth Southgate’s men got off to a winning start at the 2024 European Championship, defeating Serbia 1-0 thanks to Jude Bellingham’s early header.

As always, there was plenty to discuss after the match. Here are the five main takeaways from the clash in Gelsenkirchen.

Jude Bellingham shines

Off the back of a sensational debut campaign at Real Madrid, Bellingham was once again the standout for England. He showcased the very best of his ability, causing all sorts of problems for the Serbian backline and netting the winner.

The youngster never hid – he was always eager to get on the ball and make things happen. The opposition could often do little to stop him and had to resort to tactical fouling to prevent him from causing further damage.

The midfielder is arguably the star man in the England ranks. If he can consistently produce these performances, they will have a real chance at ending their 58-year trophy drought.


Phil Foden struggles

There is a consequence to Bellingham’s brilliance. Phil Foden – who has been magnificent playing centrally for Manchester City – is unable to play in his preferred position.

Instead, he is shifted out to the left wing. This is an area that Foden has played several times before for club and country, so he’s not completely out of position. However, there is little doubt that he would prefer playing through the middle.

Nonetheless, it does not seem unreasonable to demand more from the Premier League Player of the Season winner. He has now made 35 appearances on the international stage in all sorts of roles, and it is difficult to remember many standout performances.

By contrast, Bellingham and Bukayo Saka are often among England’s best and most consistent performers. If Foden wishes to play in his favoured areas, he must outperform the aforementioned pair.

Some people may lay the blame at the feet of Southgate, who is evidently still unsure as to how to get the best out of the 24-year-old. It certainly wouldn’t have helped him to have an also out-of-position Kieran Trippier down his side.

But the manager may have to make a bold call here. It would be a shame to see a player of Foden’s talent go to waste, but his performances at club level are largely irrelevant to England.

If Southgate feels like someone else may be more effective on the left, it would not be a surprise to see him dropped to the bench.

Trent Alexander-Arnold experiment produces mixed results

Perhaps the most up-for-grabs position in the England starting XI is in central midfield.

Declan Rice has nailed down one of the two spots, but following the declines of Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips, no one else has staked a strong claim for that role.

For years, fans have tipped Trent Alexander-Arnold as a central midfielder. He’s got bags of energy and is one of the best passers of a ball in the world.

But questions remain over his knowhow. He’s played most of his career as a right-back – a position where you get far more time and space on the ball.

Alexander-Arnold got his chance to prove himself in midfield on Sunday. Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive.

There were some bright moments from the Liverpool man. He played some of his trademark passes, and produced a vital interception in the lead-up to Kyle Walker’s chance in the first half.

However, there were also some shaky moments. The most notable of these came shortly after the opening goal when his loose touch allowed Aleksandar Mitrovic to get a shot away.

England lacked control in midfield after the break – something that Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton specialise in. This could prove to be an issue, especially against top opposition.

This is where many people have reservations about Alexander-Arnold. He can produce spectacular moments, but will he help you consistently dominate a match? That remains to be seen.

Defence looks solid

Going into the tournament, many people cited England’s defence as a weakness. With Harry Maguire ruled out and Luke Shaw’s fitness still uncertain, the Three Lions were set to head to Germany with a shake-up at the back.

But is it fair to point to the backline as a problem? Sure, on paper, it seems as if the superstars of the England team are in attack, but the defence has been a major strength in recent years.

At the last European Championship, they conceded just two goals in seven games, and kept three clean sheets from a possible five at the World Cup.

Sunday’s match against Serbia made it nine clean sheets from the last 13 fixtures at major tournaments, conceding just six in that time.

By contrast, France, Portugal, and Germany have a combined total of six clean sheets from each of their last 13 tournament outings.

For all the pressure that England came under, it’s difficult to remember them conceding any clear-cut chances. Marc Guehi in particular was outstanding, handling the physical threat of Aleksandar Mitrovic excellently.

This is by far the biggest positive that Southgate can take from the game. Despite struggling to impose much control on the match, his men rarely looked like conceding.

England got the job done

Was it a great performance from England? No, of course not. In fact, it wasn’t even a good one. But they won, and that’s what is most important.

They will need to improve if they wish to lift the trophy. But in previous years, we’ve seen plenty of sides struggle in their opening games before eventually progressing to triumph.

Argentina lost their first game at the World Cup to Saudi Arabia. In 2018, France needed a freak own goal to beat Australia. Portugal drew their opener of Euro 2016 to Iceland. Spain lost to Switzerland in 2010.

You don’t have to be a perfect 10/10 every game to win a tournament, as long as the results are there.

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