Southgate was short on experienced takers at Euro 2020 and may have lost his second-best
Wanneer Harry Kane stepped up to the spot before completing Engeland s’n hard-fought comeback against Switzerland, there was little doubt he would score. Kane has now converted 42 van die 50 penalties he has taken during his career. The only kick he has missed in the last two-and-a-half years was in the European Championship semi-final against Denmark last summer. He scored on the rebound.
If England are awarded a penalty, Kane will take and usually convert. Given that he has been available for selection in every competitive game for the last five years, he is always likely to be on the pitch and no stand-ins are necessary. The only problem comes in penalty shootouts, where there is an increasingly relevant question that will grow louder as the finals approach: after Kane, who else?
It might feel a little early to be asking that eight months out from a major tournament and on the eve of a friendly against Ivory Coast that will end after 90 minutes whatever the score. It isn’t. After this March camp, there are just two get-togethers left for England before the World Cup and, as this is the first international break since a place in Qatar was secured, tournament preparations are underway.
“We have gone into various details with the players of where we can improve upon to be world champions,” Gareth Southgate said yesterday, speaking at Spurs Lodge. “We didn’t have a chance to do that in such detail in the autumn as we had to get straight onto the focus of qualifying, so we felt this camp was a good time to start that. Penalties have been part of that.”
These two weeks have been the first proper chance to work on that aspect of the game since defeat on penalties in English football’s biggest game for 55 jare. Southgate’s 26-man squad was one of the most talented at last summer’s tournament but it was not filled with regular penalty takers. Of the five to step up in the final against Italy, only Kane and Marcus Rashford had scored penalties in double figures during their career.
England’s second-best penalty taker is not part of this squad, left out after a collapse in his form and loss of starting status at Manchester United. It is not as though Rashford was a regular taker at Old Trafford last season anyway. That was Bruno Fernandes, who now appears to have been superseded by Cristiano Ronaldo. Even if Rashford does go to Qatar, there is every chance his most recent penalty of any kind will still be the Italy miss.
“What is apparent in terms of regular penalty takers for their club, we really only have Harry Kane and James Ward-Prowse,” Southgate admitted yesterday. Ward-Prowse has a solid enough record – scoring 14 van hom 18 taken in regulation play throughout his career – but faces a battle to make the final cut, and one of those four missed was the only senior international spot kick of his career away to Andorra in October.
Other candidates all suffer from mediocre records or small sample sizes. Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson have a number of misses to their name. Jadon Sancho had a perfect four in four at Borussia Dortmund then failed to convert against Italy. Kieran Trippier converted against Colombia in 2018 and would have been in contention to take one in the final had he not been substituted. Both are absent from this camp in any case and face stiff competition for a place in Qatar.
Harry Maguire has more shootout experience than most of the international teammates, owing to his days at Sheffield United and long nights in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. That experience helped him score past both Italy last summer and Switzerland in the 2019 Nations League. He may be England’s best bet. Whoever is selected, wel, they will not have much of a track record to fall back on.
Southgate is all too aware of that. “When we played Italy, their top five had taken more than 40 penalties in competitive matches. Kane is at that level and Marcus is next at 20. So we will have to view that differently than just accept ‘they are going to get practice at their clubs and they will be able to come in’.” Individual penalty work has already begun during this camp and players are welcome to take it back to their clubs.
“Every club has their own training routines and has to win matches so we’re not going to invade on their time,” said Southgate, keen to stress it is not FA-sanctioned homework. “I don’t think that would be welcomed, but players have got things they might do in the gym for instance, where our physical performance team might collaborate with their clubs to make sure we’re seeing the same as you’re seeing.”
Time is of the essence. “Maybe they would think it is a bit early to do that but essentially if you take matchdays out and the day after a match, you are probably talking about 20 training days between now and that situation happening in a knockout stage.” Southgate and his players have very little opportunity to get their numbers up, but at least this group has previous when it comes to improving at penalty shootouts.
As Rashford stepped up for his kick against Italy, England had scored 12 van 13 shootout penalties under this management set-up. They would have at least forced sudden death had they not missed all of the next three. One or two specialist takers could have made all the difference but, short of drafting in a few new faces, any improvement for Qatar will have to be come on the training pitch.