In another performance blighted by spells of loose passing, lost midfield wandering, and wanting incisiveness, England roused itself twice to muster a sleepy 2-1 victory over Slovakia on Monday.
The mental strength of Marcus Rashford was commendable. The Manchester United youngster squandered possession in the lead-up to the visitor’s opener, but made amends by assisting Eric Dier’s equaliser from a corner, and then lashing home the winner after 59 minutes.
But England never takes control. Even on Friday, it look late flurry to record a flattering 4-0 win in Malta, a team that fielded representatives from the low-grade local division and even one player from the National League’s Ebbsfleet United.
Nearly 12 months since Gareth Southgate was first put in temporary charge, there’s been no discernible improvement. Here are three reasons why:
Against Malta – a side that was ranked 190th out of 211 teams by FIFA and had conceded five at the same venue against Scotland at the beginning of its qualification campaign – Southgate chose to deploy two holding midfielders.
This is a different issue from Roy Hodgson shoehorning Wayne Rooney into his plans. For Southgate – a man who’s bemoaned how players of England’s past haven’t been able to express themselves – it seems more like he’s trying to prove that he’s more tactically minded than his predecessors, but there’s little evidence to suggest that’s the case.
A back-four was warranted against Malta – three centre-backs would’ve been unnecessary – but to use both Jake Livermore and Jordan Henderson in midfield was a waste. There were some neat moments of passing play, albeit at a sluggish tempo. A 4-1-4-1 with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain operating centrally alongside Dele Alli would’ve put on a better show for the travelling throng.
Then Slovakia displayed bits of football that England is miles from: crisp passing rather than long balls, and serious graft when off the ball. Out of the two teams on Wembley’s turf, Jan Kozak appeared to be the manager who’d given the most coherent tactical instructions.
The nation isn’t enthralled
After years of not living up to expectations while Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Wayne Rooney all turned out for England, the fans have now grown sick of mediocrity.
The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor saw supporters untying their flags from Malta’s Ta’ Qali stadium and leaving 20 minutes early. Then, after the locals began to mock the ineptitude of their supposedly superior opponent, the England fans backed their judgement with a repetitive chorus of “We’re f—— s—.”
“I’ve played in so many qualifiers and watched so many qualifiers, and I don’t remember many of them being free-flowing, champagne football,” Southgate said after that match, strangely drawing comfort from the dross that’s been served up in recent decades.
The disenchantment was also evident at Wembley; the turnout was 67,823. Over 82,000 watched amateurs play the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final in Dublin on Sunday.
Everyone else is so much better
Considering the quality of England’s opponents at next year’s World Cup, there’s an argument that the Three Lions are no longer underachieving. Being booted from that tournament at the Round of 16 stage is about England’s level.
Germany is still formidable, with Timo Werner becoming a more prominent part of Joachim Low’s plans despite a chunk of the fan base refusing to forgive his employment at RB Leipzig, and his dive against Schalke last December. Spain, with its embarrassment of attacking riches, overwhelmed Italy on Friday with an Isco-inspired 3-0 win. France suffered a 0-0 stumble against Luxembourg on Saturday, but has a frightening youthful contingent that flexed its muscles three days earlier when trouncing the Netherlands 4-0.
Then there’s matters overseas, where Brazil has dominated CONMEBOL qualification with a front-three often selected from the formidable quintet of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and Willian.
England, meanwhile, fields a congested, tempo-hampering midfield supervised by a man who wears a nice v-neck jumper every now and then. It’s uninspiring stuff.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)