Czech Republic 2-1 England: A disturbing night for Southgate as cracks reappear

Gareth Southgate at full-time
The result ended a sequence of 43 qualifying games without defeat for England

The alarm bells were ringing for England manager Gareth Southgate even in victory over Kosovo in September - on the grim evidence of a dismal and thoroughly deserved defeat to the Czech Republic in Prague, no-one was listening.

England's sequence of 43 unbeaten qualifiers stretching back a decade - flattering when placed in the context of their wretched performances at every major tournament except the 2018 World Cup - was ended in the noisy surroundings of Slavia Prague's Sinobo Stadium.

It was a disturbing night for Southgate. The cracks that have been exposed when under pressure in the recent past reappeared and then widened as the Czechs rediscovered the verve of their better days.

England's displays are starting to produce a pattern and it is one that places their hopes of success in what could almost be termed a home tournament next summer into sharp relief.

Adept at rolling over timid opposition emphatically, England struggle when the punishment comes back the other way.

Think Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat in Moscow. Think the Netherlands in the Uefa Nations League semi-final defeat in Guimaraes in June. Even think Kosovo last month, when they rattled England regularly before finally going down to a 5-3 defeat after trailing 5-1 at half-time.

The phrase "flat track bullies" is perhaps too easily applied, but any more of this and it is a label England are in danger of being saddled with.

Are they as good as they think they are? Are they as good as we think they have been?

They will still surely qualify, so the judgement will come next summer when they face top opposition.

England may have made it four wins from four in qualifying in that game against Kosovo, but the unpleasant aftertaste was of a defensive shambles that suggested they would be fair game for any decent attack in international football.

And so it proved here in Prague, where even the boost of Harry Kane's fifth-minute penalty, taking him to equal 12th in England's all-time list of goalscorers with 27, could not save them from themselves.

Let us credit the Czech Republic. This was not the side that fell so easily to that 5-0 defeat at Wembley in March. They saw their chance and took it - the only surprise was it took so long for them to strike the decisive blow.

As for England, this was a thoroughly forgettable, desperately mediocre performance that simply must be addressed and quickly.

The only player to emerge with credit was Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who kept the Czechs at bay before substitute Zdenek Ondrasek's late strike settled matters.

If anything, the worries about England's defensive frailties against Kosovo were underscored here on a dreadful night all round for Southgate and his players.

If the Kosovo chaos was the wake-up call, this was the alarm that kicked England out of bed and into the street.

Jakub Brabec equalises for Czech Republic against England
Twelve of the 33 goals England have conceded under Gareth Southgate have been from set pieces

England have had the bouquets. It is now time for the brickbats.

There is no point skirting around the issue. Everton's Michael Keane is a competent club defender but he looks nervous and often out of his depth at international level.

Harry Maguire may be an £85m defender after his move to Manchester United and he is likely to stay as Southgate's first choice, but he is another who has been unimpressive stretching back to the Uefa Nations League. Both he and Keane were culpable against Kosovo and shaky here.

Southgate may now be tempted to give Liverpool's Joe Gomez his chance, despite a lack of game time at Anfield, while Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings and Chelsea youngster Fikayo Tomori are out here with this squad.

Manchester City's John Stones has struggled with fitness and form and Southgate must hope he rediscovers both very soon.

He must also consider changes at full-back. Ben Chilwell will replace suspended Danny Rose in Sofia on Monday while Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold must be a contender to replace Kieran Trippier. They represent the possibilities of instant improvement.

Southgate himself cannot escape criticism here - and in his defence he made no attempt to do so - because, while his decision to give Chelsea's Mason Mount his full debut was a perfectly understandable one, the shape and balance of England's team was all wrong, especially in the first half.

Mount could not get involved in an advanced position and this, coupled with a bad night for the exposed and out of sorts Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice, played a major part in England's downfall.

Henderson's passing was poor, Rice peripheral and often by-passed as the lively Czechs overran England.

It looked like a situation made for the calm and measured approach of Tottenham's Harry Winks but he stayed on the bench.

Harry Kane
Harry Kane endured a frustrating night - completing only 56% of his 25 attempted passes

England have a front three that ranks among the finest in European football in Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho but a fat lot of good it will do them if their defence performs like this against the top-class opposition they can expect to meet next summer.

This trident will produce a lot of goals. It is an area of the team that will not concern Southgate - what will worry him is the amount they will have to score to offset glaring deficiencies behind them.

England will still qualify with victory in Sofia and if Kosovo fail to beat Montenegro but suddenly the skies are not quite as clear for Southgate and his squad.

They have a soft underbelly which has slowly but surely been exposed.

England have had fine moments in recent times, such as that run to the World Cup semi-final and the victory in Spain a year ago that helped them reach the inaugural Uefa Nations League Finals, but they still have to convince they can handle the heat at the highest level.

Here in Prague, they were predictable - and not in a good way. Pedestrian and outmanoeuvred. There was no good news to report.

Southgate and England must swiftly re-set in time for Monday - but there are serious questions surrounding this fragile team that will only be answered definitively when they are in the heat of competitive battle next summer.

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