It feels as though the intensity has stepped up a notch this time for England.
Last month’s internationals, before the Premier League had even started, were pretty much a non-event as England’s performances in a lucky win over Iceland and boring draw with Denmark suggested.
This week’s triple-header – a friendly with Wales then a UEFA Nations League double-header against Belgium and Denmark, all at Wembley – seems altogether more serious and the beginning of the true Euro 2020 countdown.
Gareth Southgate has nine months to figure out his best team and formation for Euro 2020
England lacked spark during their drab goalless draw against Denmark a month ago
It’s up to Gareth Southgate now to work out his most effective starting line-up, his best system and the strongest group of 23 players for the tournament squad.
The England manager has also been forced to deal with these extraordinary times and all manner of fall-out from the apparent inability of high-profile footballers to follow Covid-19 rules.
We take a look at some of the big issues facing Southgate as the Three Lions return to action.
Getting the system right
Southgate’s decision to shelve the familiar 4-3-3 and return to a three-man defence for last month’s Nations League match with Denmark raised a few eyebrows.
And there was plenty of criticism directed his way after England’s insipid performance in Copenhagen, which had echoes of dire England displays from the pre-Southgate era.
The 4-3-3 set-up is more commonly used in club football and England’s players would certainly be more comfortable with it than the 3-4-3 they are now being asked to play in.
It’s a slight variation on the 3-5-2 or 3-1-4-2 that served England very well in reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.
England went with Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice against Denmark, which was too negative
And there’s no reason why the 3-4-3, which can quickly revert to five at the back when England are defending, can’t be the way forward for Euro 2020.
But against Denmark, Southgate didn’t achieve the balanced he wanted and it was probably more down to team selection.
Having two defensive midfielders in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips in the centre of the park was too negative and stifled fluidity and creativity.
It was only when Mason Mount and Jack Grealish were introduced from the bench that England started to look better going forward.
It was only when Jack Grealish was introduced from the bench that England had some spark
Southgate is likely to persist with the 3-4-3 for these upcoming games and his players should become more accustomed to it as time goes on.
The manager was right to reintroduce this set-up now with another nine months and probably 10 games before the Euros start.
The key question now is whether Southgate can find the right personnel to make his desired system produce the desired results.
In any case, it really shouldn’t be asking too much of England’s finest players to be able to switch between a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 formation when required.
Is Pickford a reliable No 1?
Southgate has had faith in Jordan Pickford throughout his time in charge, placing great value on his ability to distribute the ball well.
The Everton keeper has won 26 caps for his country, all during Southgate’s time in charge, and he’s only missed two England games since the start of the World Cup.
But the recent mistakes that have crept into Pickford’s game will certainly give Southgate cause for concern.
He made two mistakes against Fleetwood Town in the Carabao Cup and then another in the Premier League game with Brighton last weekend.
England No 1 Jordan Pickford has come under pressure following a series of mistakes lately
Since the beginning of the 2017-18 season, Pickford has made 11 mistakes leading to goals in Premier League matches, more than any other keeper during that time.
Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti continues to pick him – it helps that Everton have made a flying start to the season – but he may have to prove himself again as England’s No 1 despite not doing anything wrong playing for them.
Nick Pope is likely to play in the friendly with Wales on Thursday night and Manchester United’s Dean Henderson is another contender.
Pickford will take the gloves for the Nations League games but there is, for the first time in a while, addition scrutiny on his England performances.
Centre-back candidates are struggling
Southgate would have shuddered while watching the performances of key centre-backs Harry Maguire and Joe Gomez last weekend.
Maguire didn’t cover himself in glory as Manchester United were humiliated 6-1 at home by Tottenham before Gomez was similarly woeful in Liverpool’s 7-2 loss to Aston Villa.
It couldn’t have been worse-timed as Southgate changes formation and needs three in-form central defenders instead of the usual two.
Harry Maguire returns to the England squad but has struggled this season with Man United
Joe Gomez (left) struggled as Liverpool were smashed 7-2 by Aston Villa at the weekend
Any vulnerability will be ruthlessly exposed by a Belgium side ranked No 1 in the world and a defeat to them this Sunday could kill England’s hopes of reaching another Nations League finals.
Maguire has endured a nightmare start to the season with questions asked as to how badly he has been affected by his arrest and trial following a brawl in Mykonos.
That incident saw him cut from the last England squad but he returns to the fold this time in the wake of that Old Trafford thrashing by Spurs.
Gomez played against Iceland but conceded a last-gasp penalty that was thankfully missed but Southgate will hope both players recover their form soon.
Tottenham’s Eric Dier (right) has enjoyed a positive opening to the season for club and country
Everton’s Michael Keane has the opportunity to play his way back into the England side
Luckily for him, Tottenham’s Eric Dier, now an accepted centre-back rather than midfielder, has started the season well and Wolves’ Conor Coady didn’t put a foot wrong on his England debut against Denmark.
There could also be a route back for Michael Keane after Everton’s great start to the season.
He was dropped by Southgate after looking unconvincing in the Euro 2020 qualifier against Kosovo and the Czech Republic 12 months ago but his form has recovered to push for a place again now.
Southgate pointed out that England have actually kept five clean sheets in a row. What he didn’t say is that opposition has included Iceland, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bulgaria and that they conceded five goals in the two games before that.
Who will provide the creative spark?
As mentioned, England were completely devoid of midfield spark in the goalless draw with Denmark.
It’s no good having the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho in your forward line if there’s no service to them.
Southgate, like so many England managers before him, is crying out for a technically-gifted midfielder who can pick the right passes.
Ideally, it needs to be someone who isn’t afraid of tracking back to cover as well but that may be asking too much.
Phil Foden started for England against Iceland but was then sent back home in disgrace
James Ward-Prowse is likely to feature in the England midfield for the match against Wales
As mentioned, the Rice and Phillips combination against Denmark didn’t really work, while they weren’t that much better with James Ward-Prowse and Phil Foden pulling the strings against Iceland.
Manchester City’s Foden is certainly the long-term option but he’s absent this time following his breach of Covid-19 protocols by inviting two women into England’s Reykjavik team hotel.
So in his absence we could see Ward-Prowse once again, probably alongside Tottenham’s Harry Winks, for the Wales game.
Hopes could be pinned on Chelsea’s Mason Mount to provide some midfield spark
Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin should be handed a debut following his excellent form
There should be a chance for Chelsea’s Mason Mount to show what he can do in a No 8 role against Belgium and he certainly appears the best bet for the upcoming games.
In the front line, Grealish deserves another opportunity to stake his claim and there’s likely to be debuts for Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Leicester’s in-form Harvey Barnes.
England do boast one of the best front threes anywhere but a truly game-changing midfielder really does need to emerge if they’re to stand any chance at next summer’s Euros.
Fire-fighting the off-field problems
Southgate is a natural-born diplomat and always chooses the right words even on the thorniest of issues but even he appears to have reached the end of his tether this week.
The 50-year-old hates coming across as a headmaster to a bunch of unruly pupils but that’s how he must feel most of the time.
After the drama over Maguire’s arrest in Greece at the end of August caused an embarrassing u-turn in his selection for the last squad, more problems lay around the corner.
Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were dropped from this England squad after their indiscretions in Iceland last month
Foden and Mason Greenwood tarnished their senior debuts by breaching coronavirus and team rules with an act of stupidity and have paid the price by not being picked this time.
It must be frustrating for Southgate as he tries to give these highly promising young charges a shot at claiming a place for Euros but it’s more damaging for the players themselves.
And he must have been truly exasperated when news broke that Tammy Abraham, Jadon Sancho and Ben Chilwell went to Abraham’s birthday party, breaching the ‘rule of six’, and meaning they can’t feature against Wales.
Gareth Southgate has warned his stars that ill-discipline puts their England place in doubt
Jadon Sancho will miss the Wales friendly having been found breaching social distancing
Tammy Abraham (left) and Ben Chilwell (right) were at the secret party – thrown as a surprise for Chelsea striker Abraham’s birthday – along with Borussia Dortmund star Sancho
Once again, Southgate had to play the headteacher role and issue a reminder that such behaviour won’t be tolerated and that the honour of representing your country comes with responsibilities.
How he must tire of seeing his best-laid plans ripped up by these breaches of discipline and with the virus going nowhere, who knows how many times this will happen against between now and next June.
Looming over everything is also the tiresome club vs country debate, with club managers keen to see their players used sparingly while on England duty.
It’ll be enhanced during such a hectic season and all this contributes to the sense that Southgate spends too much of his time putting out fires rather than being able to concentrate on his real job.