Kane and Saka’s absence underlined England have strength but not depth – The Athletic

By Jack Pitt-BrookeMar 24, 2024

Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Brazil was a reminder of something that has been forgotten amid all of the bullishness about England’s attacking quality. Yes, they have strength, but they still lack depth.

It is easy to get excited about the quality of players in theory available to Southgate next month. Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Harry Kane are all in the form of their lives. The five of them have been among the most impressive players anywhere in the world this season. Alan Shearer has called them five of the best front six in world football. England have never gone into a major tournament being able to say that before.


But none of this means England are in a position of impermeable strength. The pool of players is glistening in parts but ultimately shallow. Southgate came into this game with one-third of his roughly 40-man longlist unavailable to him, saying that it was the worst injury crisis he had faced in his tenure. And this game underlined the very obvious point that if you remove just two key players for England, even their three superstars do not shine quite as brightly.

Kane watched on but will not play for England this month (Robin Jones/Getty Images)

This is a rare international break in which Kane will play no part, the England captain having injured his ankle colliding with a goalpost against Darmstadt last weekend. He reported for duty but was not fit enough to play here and will now return to Munich, unable to play any part against Belgium on Tuesday, either. The last international break Kane did not play one minute was in March 2018, as Southgate was fine-tuning his team for Russia. He played Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Jamie Vardy up front instead.

Six years on, Rashford is still here, but Southgate has some fresh options to try out at centre-forward. Ollie Watkins and Ivan Toney are both in the squad and Southgate has admitted he does not know yet if there will be room for both of them on the plane to Germany in June. This week could be decisive in these two players’ international careers.

On Saturday it was Watkins who got the nod, the man in better club form, with 16 Premier League goals for Aston Villa, and the man with more international experience so far. Watkins is clearly a very good striker, fast, imaginative, direct. He could even claim to be the most improved player in the league in recent years. But this was a night where the differences between him and Kane could not have been more obvious.

The point is not that Watkins is not good enough, more that over the past nine years, this England team has come to cohere around Kane. He is not just the captain and the all-time record goalscorer. He is England’s technical leader on the pitch, he dominates on set pieces at both ends, he holds up the ball, brings team-mates into play, plays in runners beyond him. He is the be-all and end-all of this England side and to take him out is to lose the lynchpin and the structure with it.


Watkins worked as well as he could here, pressing high alongside Bellingham, trying to run in behind the Brazil defence. He had one half chance, shooting over after a clever dink over the top from Conor Gallagher halfway through the first half. But he could never be that organising focal point that Kane is, that reference for the rest of the team. No one can replicate that accumulated authority and skill — 89 caps, 62 goals — overnight.

Foden is a fine player but has not yet hit the heights in international football that Saka has (Pedro Loureiro/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

Southgate said afterwards that he was “really pleased” with the players he did get to see here, but admitted that trying to find some sort of solution to the Kane problem is not easy. “We need to know where we might head if we didn’t have Harry for a big match,” he said. “I thought Ollie did a good job, he didn’t get that clear chance on goal that he might want as a forward, but a lot of his work was very, very good. We clearly had a couple who would normally start missing, but it was a good experiment.”

The other big-name player missing was Saka, who has gone from being a bright teenager three years ago to now being one of the first names on Southgate’s teamsheet. He normally provides so much of the speed, incision and energy from that right-hand side. Here, with Foden in the role instead, England just looked a bit slower and blunter. Foden is a brilliant talent but he has not hit the same level in international tournaments that Saka has. He was moved into the middle later on but it still feels as if his England future is on the left.

This was not a bad England team, with Bellingham and Rice providing some brilliant moments of their own in the middle of the pitch, even if England struggled to turn their possession into clear chances. But without Kane and Saka it lacked cutting edge and imagination, the things that are so hard to come by in the international game, things that they will desperately need in Germany. Perhaps this is a reminder that for all England’s thrilling quality, there will always be a fragility when key parts are removed.

(Top photo: Pedro Loureiro/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

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Jack Pitt-Brooke is a football journalist for The Athletic based in London. He joined in 2019 after nine years at The Independent.