Southgate sees room for improvement as England coast to win in Tirana

By Sports Desk March 28, 2021

Gareth Southgate saw room for improvement from England as they coasted to a 2-0 World Cup qualifying defeat of Albania.

The Three Lions followed up their 5-0 drubbing of San Marino with another comfortable Group I win at the Air Albania Stadium on Sunday.

Captain Harry Kane ended a run of six games without a goal for his country with a first-half header and laid one on for Mason Mount after the break.

Kane and Phil Foden also struck the woodwork and Albania could not muster a shot on target in Tirana, where their run of four consecutive victories came to an end.

England boss Southgate was not impressed with the way his side finished a game they dominated ahead of a showdown with Poland at Wembley on Wednesday.

"It was a difficult pitch to move the ball on but we adapted well to that," Southgate told ITV Sport. "After about 25 minutes we just changed the shape of the midfield a little bit and we looked more dangerous.

"They had a different formation to the one they've played in the last 25 matches, so I thought we adapted well to that.

"We were comfortable for most of the second half. I just thought at the end of the game we had opportunities to make it three and should have killed the game off.

"I didn't like the way we managed the game in the last 15 minutes, charging forward when we didn't need to and a throw-in at the end that we nearly conceded a goal from.

"I'm pleased we can win but I thought there were areas we can certainly tighten up on."

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    Sweden had sensationally put an end to USA's 44-match unbeaten streak at the start of the women's tournament, with Megan Rapinoe admitting the beaten world champions had "played a bit tight" in a 3-0 defeat.

    However, Vlatko Andonovski's side responded impressively to that setback on Saturday, thrashing New Zealand 6-1 in Saitama, in the process registering their largest margin of victory in an Olympics fixture.

    Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan gave USA a 2-0 half-time lead, the latter on target to mark her 100th cap. Further efforts from Christen Press and Alex Morgan added to the score after the break, while they were helped out by their opponents scoring two own goals.

    It is the Swedes who sit on top of the table, though, as a strong second-half performance sealed a 4-2 triumph against Australia.

    Meanwhile, Banda equalled the record for most goals scored by a woman at a single Olympics, matching Christine Sinclair's tally of six for Canada at London 2012 with another treble, this time against China.

    Zambia's captain scored all her country's goals in a 10-3 loss to the Netherlands in their Group F opener. She followed up with three more in a thrilling 4-4 draw on Saturday, though China's Wang Shuang went one better as she hit four in a see-saw contest.

    Vivianne Miedema later moved level with Banda on six goals at this Olympics. The forward had scored four as the Dutch crushed Zambia, then managed another two in a 3-3 draw against Brazil.

    Ellen White continued her impressive start to the tournament with the winner as Great Britain defeated hosts Japan 1-0 to qualify for the last eight.

    Having scored twice in the opening 2-0 win over Chile, White made it 13 goals in her past 14 international outings when heading in a cross from Lucy Bronze in the 74th minute.

    Also in Group E, Canada overcame Chile 2-1 thanks to a brace from Janine Beckie, putting them second in the standings ahead of a clash with Team GB to finish the round-robin stage.

  • Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address? Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address?

    Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

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    It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

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    Physical dominance is the key

    There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

    While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

    Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

    In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

    In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

    Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

    Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

    But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

     

    And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

    While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

    That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

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    Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

    Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

    The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

    That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

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    For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

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    But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

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    Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

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    Their 2020-21 win percentage of 55.3 in the Premier League was the second highest United have achieved in a season since Alex Ferguson retired as manager in 2013, beaten only by the 65.8 per cent they managed under Mourinho when finishing second in the 2017-18 campaign.

    The 73 league goals they scored was the highest United have tallied in the post-Ferguson era, with the team's 12 away wins in the top flight also the most they have mustered since the long-serving Scot stepped aside.

    In fact, United have not lost away from Old Trafford in the Premier League since going down 2-0 to Liverpool in January 2020 – that is a run of 26 matches.

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