COLOGNE, Germany — The time for improvisation is running out. England‘s insipid 0-0 draw with Slovenia in Cologne on Tuesday may have been enough to seal top spot in Group C, but it only reinforced the idea that manager Gareth Southgate is rolling the dice with his team selection hoping the right number comes up.

The experiment of using Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield was abandoned here with Chelsea‘s Conor Gallagher drafted in, the solitary change in personnel from last Thursday’s 1-1 draw against Denmark, which raised so many questions and prompted former England captain Gary Lineker to brand their performance as “s—.” Tuesday’s effort was only marginally better, despite all the pre-match talk of righting wrongs and sending a positive message.

There was a better basic structure here, England switching from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, with centre-back Marc Guéhi — one second-half mistake aside — a stoic presence in defence. They kept the ball with more authority as Declan Rice came back to something close to his prime Arsenal form.

Beyond that, though, England’s collective attacking players were once again considerably less than the sum of their stellar individual parts against a weaker team than Denmark.

It all felt thrown together in treacle: a menagerie of individuals struggling to find each other with any rhythm or tempo, stymied a little by the sweltering heat of a German summer arriving better late than never. But the heat does not explain the conservatism in possession, the reluctant to take a risk, the lack of innovation from Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden (the best of the quartet) and Bukayo Saka — four players whose innate quality decides games at club level on a weekly basis.

Southgate is a methodical manager by trade, meticulous in his planning. His biggest asset remains tournament experience.

Four tournaments as a player, now four as a manager, the 53-year-old reconnected England with their beleaguered supporters after taking charge in 2016 and found a formula that dragged them closer than any other manager since Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966 to a second major international honour, when losing the Euro 2020 final to Italy on penalties.

But England quite simply look less likely to lift a trophy now than they did even two years ago at the last World Cup. And that connection with the fans is being tested to the limit; Southgate made a point of applauding the fans housed at one end of RheinEnergieStadion and some responded in kind but others booed and a couple threw beer cups in his direction.

A decision will be made after these Euros whether Southgate stays on through the 2026 World Cup. Some appear to have made their mind up already, believing the team has outgrown him.

“I understand it,” Southgate said of the mixed reaction to him. “I’m not going to back away from it. The most important thing here is that the supporters stay with the team.

“I understand the narrative towards me and that’s better for than it being towards them, but it is creating an unusual environment to operate in. I’ve not seen any team qualify and receive similar.

“We’ve made England over the last six or seven years fun again. I think it has been enjoyable for the players. We’ve got to be very, very careful that it stays that way.

“I recognise that when you have moments at the end of the game, I’m asking the players to be fearless, I’m not going to back down from going over and thanking the fans who were brilliant during the game. They might feel differently towards me, but for me, we only will succeed if we are together. That energy is crucial for the team and it is so important they stay with the team, however they feel towards me.”

Southgate’s search for answers could yield something from elements of the second half.

Gallagher lasted 45 minutes to be replaced by Kobbie Mainoo, who looked more comfortable as a No. 8; Southgate is often chastised for waiting to substitute players but he didn’t dither on this occasion. Cole Palmer was bright on his first appearance of the finals, coming on for the final 19 minutes.

There was one genuinely sharp move in each half. Saka finished a slick move 20 minutes in but Foden was well offside in the build-up.

And in stoppage-time, Anthony Gordon, also making his tournament debut, played an excellent early forward pass for Mainoo to flick onto Kane, who in turn found Palmer. The Chelsea playmaker could only fire straight at Slovenia goalkeeper Jan Oblak, but the sight of three substitutes combining with a mixture of quick thinking and fearlessness offers hope England can rouse themselves from their collective slumber when the knockout rounds begin.

Yet Southgate is scrambling. Bellingham was disappointing, kept on by reputation rather than influence. During one second-half spell, he went out left so Foden could come more inside. Briefly, he went to the right when Palmer tried to affect the game out on the left. None of it suited him.

Why struggling England are still Euro 2024 favourites

Frank Leboeuf assesses England’s hopes in the knockout stages of Euro 2024.

The good news is England have four days to try to find some clarity in the confusion. Results elsewhere mean their route from here is not as fearsome as it may have been, a familiar stroke of luck Southgate has enjoyed in previous tournaments as manager.

France, Portugal, Spain and Germany are all in the opposite half of the draw. Netherlands and Italy could lie in wait in the next two rounds — two traditional powerhouses who have so far underperformed — and Kane was right to point out England have usually improved under Southgate the deeper they go.

“If you look at previous tournaments we have played our best football in the knockout rounds,” said the England captain. “Last Euros against Germany, Ukraine and Denmark, so for sure there is more to come.”

That really needs to ring true this time. England have to get the formula right in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday. The margin for error is disappearing fast.