Can England use wake-up call from Brazil to improve for Euro 2024?

LONDON — England arranged these high-profile friendlies to help answer one of the few remaining questions about Gareth Southgate’s side: can they consistently deliver against the biggest nations?

Rather than silencing those doubts, Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Brazil at Wembley means they will grow a little louder. England are billed in some quarters as favorites for Euro 2024, but their record against the elite sides is one of the biggest factors tempering that enthusiasm. Southgate has made giant strides during his eight-year tenure, reconnecting the team with its fanbase and guiding a young side to a semifinal, final and quarterfinal in his three tournaments to date.

But each time they were undone by a side currently inside FIFA’s top 10 rankings, edged out in games of fine margins as weaknesses were exposed in defense and an inability to control games in midfield sacrificed promising positions.

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Endrick’s 80th-minute winner settled a contest which underlined how those concerns still exist, despite the positive spin Southgate sought to put on it afterwards. “With 15 minutes to go, we’re thinking we’ve managed to see a lot of new players, we’ve had more than our share of the game, we’ve had as many attempts on goal as they have, so the difference in the end was one moment,” he said. “That is the ruthlessness of football at this level.”

Yes, it is. And it was the case in Qatar, the Euro 2020 final and at the Russia World Cup two years earlier.

Those who believed simply moving Jude Bellingham into a number ten position, shifting England away from 4-3-3 to something approximating 4-2-3-1, would be a panacea must think again. Bellingham was on the end of some rough treatment by a Brazil side palpably wary of his threat but he did not achieve the match-defining influence he so regularly delivers at Real Madrid. He cannot do it every time, clearly, but the longer there is daylight between his level for Real and that for England, the more focus will shift onto Southgate to find a better way to maximize his undeniable talent.

England produced some good spells here without ever carrying a sustained threat. Of course, they were missing key players, most obviously all-time record goalscorer Harry Kane and winger Bukayo Saka. At the back, they were without Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Kieran Trippier, Marc Guehi and Luke Shaw — to name five — while Kyle Walker limped off injured inside the opening 20 minutes.

But England’s midfield issues and lack of a robust center-back pairing are longstanding issues that resemble red flags in considering their chances of success this summer. “We don’t have a lot of midfield players who play as a six in the league,” said Southgate.

It does not aid Southgate’s cause that Declan Rice is increasingly used as a number eight by Arsenal rather than the six he badly needs him to be; the lack of alternatives in part explains his prolonged loyalty to Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips, the latter finally omitted after a sustained downturn, while also justifying Kobbie Mainoo’s fast-tracking after just a handful of games at Manchester United.

Mainoo, Anthony Gordon and Ezri Konsa all made their debuts here and while there were moments of encouragement for all three, Wembley passed its own judgement, resorting to throwing paper planes — the first after just 31 minutes — as challenges like this struggle to hold their own in the midst of an enthralling Premier League campaign shortly to reach its climax.

Prestige friendlies aim to capture the imagination. Endrick certainly did that, coming off the bench to become at 17 years and 246 days the youngest-ever male player to score a senior professional goal at Wembley for club or country. But for England, they are also important barometers gauging their readiness to end a 58-year wait for a major trophy.

To be the best, they must beat the best as the adage goes. Southgate’s record against teams currently ranked in FIFA’s top 10 is now seven victories from 17 games. It is difficult to dominate at the highest level, but England’s first 90-minute defeat at Wembley in 21 games dating back to Oct. 2020 is a further indication that they still have a distance to travel in becoming the all-conquering team they look on paper.

Tuesday’s game against Belgium offers another opportunity to improve that record. Southgate must do so without Kane, who will return to Bayern Munich as he recovers from an ankle injury, while Walker will be assessed following a muscular problem. However, Henderson and Cole Palmer could come into contention after they resumed training earlier on Saturday.

“Belgium have played a different eleven probably, or close to, so they will be a bit fresher,” said Southgate. “But we’re talking about a high-level game, a brilliant experience for the players. It will be a chance to see new players again and build towards the summer. I am not disappointed with the level of performance.

“I know in the end when you lose the game, there will always be a negative reaction to losing but I thought the crowd were really with the team, seeing a lot of inexperienced players going in and doing well so I am not down on the performance at all.”

He may not be down, but for England not to be out in similar fashion this summer, improvement is needed.

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