England’s visit to Belgium on Sunday saw two of three joint-favourites for Euro 2020 go head-to-head in a competitive fixture – and it made uncomfortable viewing for England fans.
Belgium, who are currently top of FIFA’s world rankings, ran out comfortable 2-0 winners on the night, ending England’s chances of reaching the Nations League finals for consecutive years.
For manager Gareth Southgate it meant back-to-back defeats in competitive fixtures for the first time since 2018, yet top bookmakers still rank England as 5/1 joint-favourites in the outright betting for Euro 2020 along with Belgium and world champions France.
The odds are perhaps skewed by the fact that more Euro 2020 games are scheduled to be played at Wembley than at any other stadium, but with the prospect of having fans in attendance at the tournament still very much up in the air it may be of little benefit to Southgate’s side.
With England currently fourth in the world rankings and boasting an extensive roster of talented young players, fans and punters alike are already earmarking them for a first European Championship triumph next summer.
However, that expectancy comes with added pressure and former England international Emile Heskey believes it won’t do any the national side any favours to be told they’re among the favourites to win the tournament.
“We always seem to be up amongst the favourites but I don’t see how it stacks up to be honest, you’ve got to be realistic,” Heskey told bookmakers.co.uk.
“Going in to every tournament for some reason England end up being one of the favourites, regardless of where they are ranked in the world or what sort of form they’re in.
“I don’t think it’s the best way to measure our chances. We got to the semi-finals of the last World Cup when there was no pressure or expectancy on us, and I think that’s probably a better way for England to go in to a tournament.
“When the expectancy and pressure is off, it allows players to go and express themselves and enjoy their football. We often put too much pressure on England players to do this or do that and I always wonder why.”
A quick scan through the players Southgate has at his disposal and it’s not difficult to see why there is expectancy this time around – an array of talented young players are on the fringes if not already a part of the first team, but Heskey is all too wary of putting too much responsibility on young shoulders.
He said: “We’ve got players like Jack Grealish playing out their skin and we just need to let them go and perform without expecting the world. We’ve got a really good bunch of young players but the likes of Phil Foden are yet to express himself in an England shirt.
“Jadon Sancho is waiting in the wings too so the future is bright for us, but we don’t want to get too carried away at the same time.”
Indeed, it’s Aston Villa midfielder Grealish who excites Heskey the most. And although Heskey – a former Villa striker – has some concerns about putting too much pressure on the younger players coming through, he has no such fear about 25-year-old Grealish, who was England’s best player against Belgium in what was his first competitive start.
“Definitely,” said Heskey, when asked if Grealish could play his way into Southgate’s starting XI between now and next summer.
“When you look at what he actually brings to the table a word that springs to mind is ‘fearlessness’. In fact, he had that even when I was at Villa.
“He was a 15-year-old at the time and at that age you can feel intimidated when you’re coming through, but he didn’t seem to feel that, he’s always gone out and performed his natural game – dribbling past people, taking players on, drawing fouls.
“He’s still very positive in what he does and doesn’t seem scared or daunted by anything because he’s very confident in his own ability and very comfortable with what he’s doing.
“Who glides past players like Jack Grealish does right now? There’s not many. There’s not many who run with the ball like Jack from midfield. We’re talking about a midfielder here, not a winger, but there’s not many players who are playing like he plays.”
With just three shots on target in the defeat to Belgium and no goals registered in the 1-0 defeat to Denmark in England’s previous Nations League game, the potency in Southgate’s attack has been called in to question.
“We still have players who can step in and change games,” said Heskey. “I don’t think Gareth will be too concerned by the failure to really open up Belgium but it will be in the back of his mind that we need to learn how to break down the better teams and create chances.”
Part of England’s failure to score in their last two competitive games has been down to Harry Kane’s recent knack for dropping deep to assume a No. 10 role, but Heskey insists it’s up to his team-mates in attack to make better use of the space that creates.
“He’s just playing a different type of style now,” said Heskey. “We’re so used to him being up top as the talisman but he’s tapped in to a different part of his game now where he can get the ball at his feet a little deeper and start creating opportunities by himself.
“I think the inverted wingers need to do more to exploit the space that he is creating by dropping deep. These are the things England need to work on but people forget that you’re usually only with the national team for about six days of training.
“To get players to understand the tactics and implement them in six or seven days is not easy.”
Meanwhile, Jamie Vardy is joint-top scorer in the Premier League with eight goals and his ruthlessness in front of goal is something England look as though they could benefit from at present.
However, the 33-year-old retired from international football after the 2018 World Cup and although Southgate has been urged to speak to the Leicester striker about a return, Heskey insists Vardy’s decision must be respected.
He said: “Jamie is a great player and has been a great servant for the national team as well but he’s decided it’s not the route he wants to go down right now so I think it’s best to just leave him to it.
“Gareth has got some good young players to rely on as well as senior players like Harry Kane too.
“Don’t get me wrong, with the way Jamie Vardy plays and the conversion rate he has it’s up there with the best of them but he’s decided what’s best for him and I think it’s only right to leave him be.”
Southgate has plenty of options up front, with several bookies offering odds on who will make England’s final 23-man squad. At the moment, the frontrunners to be Southgate’s forwards are Kane (1/16), Raheem Sterling (1/16), Marcus Rashford (1/16), Sancho (1/16) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin (1/2).