England over-reliant on Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham as Gareth Southgate faces double Euro 2024 dilemma

Gareth Southgate's message to his players this week was simple: you are only as good as your last game.

If that is the case, then England are in trouble. Stilted in attack and stretched in defence, Monday night’s draw with North Macedonia exposed their over-reliance on their two best players.

For all the talk about England’s enviable riches and wealth of talent, it was concerning quite how much they missed Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane.

Until Kane stepped off the bench and forced an equaliser 40 seconds later, England laboured again here in Skopje.

It feels a long time ago since Bellingham and Kane helped put Italy to the sword at Wembley in October to seal a place for England at Euro 2024.

Without Bellingham’s pressing intensity, ball-winning and goal threat, England have looked decidedly flat and one-paced in their past two matches, with Monday night’s draw showing no real improvement from Friday’s turgid 2-0 home win over Malta.

While Bellingham was already a starter at the World Cup last winter, 2023 has seen him emerge not only as Real Madrid’s newest Galactico but as a leader for England.

England looked short of ideas without Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham in Skopje (The FA via Getty Images)
England looked short of ideas without Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham in Skopje (The FA via Getty Images)

In a year in which England went unbeaten, with eight wins and two draws, Bellingham has led by example, raising the levels of his team-mates as well as excelling himself. The 20-year-old now feels as crucial as Kane is to England’s hopes of winning the Euros.

Monday night also showed England’s reliance on their captain. Kane had just replaced Ollie Watkins when his presence at a corner forced Jani Atanasov into an own goal.

England’s all-time leading scorer has scored 21 goals in his past 24 games for his country and 21 times in just 16 matches since joining Bayern Munich this summer. With his goals, England are tournament contenders. Without them, probably not.

Watkins had a difficult night. As a lone striker, he was up against three centre-backs, as North Macedonia bullied England’s frontline, leaving scrapes and bruises on Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, and Watkins with little space to work.

Watkins has scored 11 goals in all competitions for Aston Villa this season, but the difference between him and Kane’s is stark. He did little to show Southgate he should be Kane’s understudy in Germany, potentially opening the door for Ivan Toney or even Eddie Nketiah.

"With Kane's goals, England are tournament contenders. Without them, probably not"

Southgate already has the spine of his team locked in, seven months from what is expected to be his last tournament.

Jordan Pickford is a cert in goal, as are Bellingham and Kane further forward. The back four will be Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire and John Stones, plus Luke Shaw at left-back, if fit, even though teenager Rico Lewis filled in well on debut on Monday night.

Southgate is left with two problems to solve: who to pick alongside Declan Rice in midfield, and who to deploy on the left of the front three, where Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and Grealish are all vying for that final attacking berth.

Who should be Rice’s partner is the greatest dilemma, because it could come to determine how England play.

Kalvin Phillips may be frozen out at Manchester City, but he showed his pedigree at Euro 2020 alongside Rice and allows England to dictate the tempo of games.

Conor Gallagher, meanwhile, has been outstanding at Chelsea this season. While he maybe lacks Phillips’s composure on the ball, he showed against Rodri in the 4-4 draw against City that he can mark even the best players out of a game and regain possession for England.

Southgate last week called him one of the best pressers in the Premier League.

Southgate got a good look at Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield in Skopje and, while he did okay, he lacks mobility and is unlikely to be a starter in Germany.

Jordan Henderson is surely out of contention to start, given the level of the Saudi Pro League.