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Serbia-England: The Story Of a Disappointing Giant

Serbia-England: The Story Of a Disappointing Giant

Kai Iliev Kai Iliev

In Group C, the favourite is obvious – the Three Lions are battling against Denmark, Serbia and Slovenia, minnows compared to the Britons.

England is not only the favourite in the group but also a strong contender to win the entire tournament. Not many teams boast players like Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, and Harry Kane. The status is immense, but it is often not enough. England might have left the pitch with three points, but the fans’ anxiety is rising.

A Quick Start For England

In a similar fashion to the Spain vs Croatia fixture, England started well. Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden had Serbia’s defence on the strings.

As many have throughout the season, the Balkans found it hard to deal with Bellingham’s movements. England quickly found the goal – as Jude scored in the thirteenth minute. And then, a void.

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Serbia Fights Back

As if all spirit was gone – England found it hard to deal with Serbia’s increasingly menacing approach. Nemanja Gudelj and Saša Lukić, both previously criticized for their lack of dynamism, showed their best performances in months.

It was obvious that England was going for the win, but it lost itself as it abandoned too many elements it could not afford to ignore. Luke Shaw’s injury, which should see him soon recovered, meant that England lacked a wide outlet in the offensive animation. 

Piksi, Serbia’s head coach, understood this and ordered his team to focus on the central channels. As simplistic as it may sound, this nullified England’s offensive dynamics.

England’s Troubles Explained

England hit a wall. From the 20th to the 90th minute, the Three Lions failed to provide clear guidelines to Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden, resulting in a lackluster midfield performance. 

Declan Rice was often left stranded without any options, and Foden, given the freedom to roam, struggled to find his role. This scenario is not uncommon for national teams, where talented players are given freedom but lack direction.

Phil Foden is one of the most versatile players, and Pep Guardiola would be the first to say it. He has seen the left wing, the central role, the right, and false nine even; Foden is truly a gem. But with so many qualities and Southgate’s lack of guidelines, the Englishman did not know what to do first, which explains the lad’s troubles throughout the game. 

England reminded many of Spain in previous tournaments: a lot of quality in the middle, but not many wide outlets.

England’s reliance on Luke Shaw as the primary wide outlet is a risky strategy. Shaw’s fitness remains a concern, and the team cannot depend solely on him for width. This issue is compounded by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s role in the midfield, which, while providing offensive options, weakens the defensive structure. This trade-off is questionable, as seen in previous matches.

Despite fielding a roughly similar XI to previous tournaments, Gareth Southgate changed the dynamics – a complete revolution, one that is about to see a few players get cut off from their routine.

Harry Maguire’s absence was felt, but the team seemed to abandon its defensive solidity. Despite their lack of precision, Serbia frequently found gaps in England’s defense and threatened repeatedly even if they failed to find the goal.

Another major problem was the lack of coordination between Pickford and the rest of his team. If England aims to play a slow build-up style and if they were to build a team around it, Pickford should not be playing. 

Although he is a great shot-stopper, 90% of his long ball distribution benefited Serbia, creating counter-attacking opportunities for the opposition, despite it starting with England’s possession. 

You can’t expect to build a functional team if the goalkeeper lacks distribution skills. This approach is particularly careless against Serbia, one of the tallest teams in the tournament, while England’s weakness lies in dealing with aerial duels.

Serbia Is Full of Hope

For Serbia, this match marks the beginning of hope. Despite losing 1–0 and not showcasing the greatest attacking football, they demonstrated resilience and the ability to fight back.

England was expected to trash Serbia, and it wasn’t an unreasonable expectation given the Three Lions’ tools to exploit defensive weaknesses. However, Serbia managed to hold their ground, especially in the second half, where they played a more controlled version of football rarely seen under Piksi.

On a less positive note, Filip Kostić might have sacrificed himself for the team. His injury is a major blow for Serbia, as there are no replacements of his quality in this role, with head coach Piksi only bringing one substitute for Kostić.

The injury looked concerning and could potentially sideline him for the rest of the tournament. As a key offensive player, Piksi will have to find a solution. 

Despite this setback, Serbia once again showed their team’s offensive potential despite benching Dušan Tadić and Luka Jović – who both proved to be potentially key. 

Piksi confirmed that Tadić was rested to keep him fresh for the crucial upcoming games against Slovenia and Denmark, which will determine whether Serbia can advance from the group stages.

A Warning For England

This match serves as a stark warning for England that adjustments are necessary. Southgate must revisit and refine his plans. You can’t get away with so much quality and expect Luke Shaw to fix it all. 

However, Serbia was probably the toughest test they’ll face in the group stages. Denmark’s draw against Slovenia (1-1) means England stands as the only team with a win in the first round of Group C. 

Southgate needs to reshuffle his team to avoid heavy criticism, as there are no excuses for England not to aim for the tournament title. This first game was, by all means, underwhelming – some might even call it a shocking performance.

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