England want to be fun but we take ourselves too seriously | Max Rushden

Estimated read time 6 min read

When was the moment you thought it was going to be one of those England games? 13min 29sec for me, Clive. John Stones overhits a relatively straightforward crossfield pass to Kieran Trippier. The makeshift left‑back (he’s right-footed in case you hadn’t been made aware) performs the classic “right idea” applause over his head as the ball sails out for a throw-in to Slovenia.

Thirteen and a half minutes is a little impatient. But this quickly became one of those games where you start wondering if you floss enough, or if your pension is invested ethically. This was 13 and a half minutes on top of the 90 against Denmark and at least 45 against Serbia. Game after game of footballing atrophy. Elite players degenerating in front of your eyes.

“Tonight was progress,” said Gareth Southgate. And he probably has to say something like this, find a positive, defend his players publicly. How refreshing would it be to hear: ‘Look, it’s been garbage but we’re still here”? It’s annoying for fans to hear players and managers talk about a game that has little bearing on what they saw. Likewise it’s annoying for Southgate to be jeered and covered in plastic cups. And it’s annoying for the players to hear fans, journalists and, most importantly, highly influential podcast hosts like me think it’s all been a bit shit.

Three games of football and everyone is annoyed. Of course great catharsis comes from moaning. And it is objectively hilarious. This is supposed to be fun and yet no one is having a good time.

There is a section of the England following – fans and media – who are too quick to anger – for whom fury is a currency. All that noise. The noise that must be blocked out. The worst thing you can do is add to the noise – and yet you want to make the point that your noise is worth listening to. Hey, I’m not a noise guy, this might even be my noise debut.

Do we really need to list the problems again? Southgate’s in-game inertia. Harry Kane looks exhausted. Jude Bellingham has done almost nothing since half-time against Serbia. The left-back situation. The (insert your next central midfielder) experiment.

Someone in England’s backroom staff must know how tired England’s players are. As Declan Rice admitted, no one is selfless enough to hold their hands up and say they’re knackered. Kane may be the elite centre-forward at this tournament. But if he can’t move, then picking Ollie Watkins might be like selecting Geoff Hurst over Jimmy Greaves in ’66. Conversely, put some directness and pace around Kane and that may make the difference.

Phil Foden popping home may get Southgate out of a hole in deciding who to play in the hole. Foden looked more dangerous than Bellingham in the No 10 position even when he wasn’t meant to be there. It would have been inconceivable to consider dropping Real Madrid’s best player a few weeks ago – you can’t not pick the guy who’s in all the adverts.

Would Southgate be worried about the fallout from losing to Slovakia after not picking Kane or Bellingham? His stubbornness suggests he wouldn’t take any notice. Dropping elite players doesn’t mean they’re not elite, it doesn’t mean they can’t come on and it doesn’t mean they can’t start the next game if there is one.

John StonesView image in fullscreen

Bukayo Saka has contributed, but not a great deal. Ditto Rice – but how much of that is because he’s introducing himself to the guy standing next to him before each game. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Conor Gallagher were asked to do things they’re not used to.

To the positives: Luke Shaw may be fit. The arrogant England fan in me wonders whether we can get away with giving him one more game off. It’s only Iceland Slovakia. But that would give some balance, finally. If not, Alexander-Arnold right-back, Kyle Walker (or even Saka) left-back is more exciting.

Most of England’s substitutes have impressed. Jarrod Bowen in the opening game, and Kobbie Mainoo, Cole Palmer and even the two minutes of Anthony Gordon. Perhaps they haven’t been on the pitch long enough to catch the lethargy – but they looked free and uninhibited.

It is obviously a stretch to make grand definitions about the DNA of a nation by watching Marc Guéhi and Stones passing the ball back and forth. Like everywhere else, England is thousands of different countries in the same place.

But I remember at half-time at Wembley at Euro 96 the Tartan Army going wild to Status Quo’s Rocking All Over The World and thinking: ‘That looks fun. Why are they allowed to have fun? Why aren’t we dancing? What’s stopping us?’ And that may be it. We are stodgy and safe, and some nations are totally cool with being stodgy and safe. But we want to dance, we want to be the fun ones, we just take ourselves a little too seriously to lose ourselves in the music without looking around to see if anyone is pointing at us. You can’t Macarena with the handbrake on.

We could start the players who haven’t noticed this yet – who are still free; they won’t be free for long. Gordon left, Palmer right, Mainoo in midfield. Make Kane do the bleep test with Watkins staring at him. Choose between Bellingham and Foden at 10. There should be no time or place for reputation. All these players are good. Some will say changing so much is madness, and not to panic. But we should be panicking.

Let’s Etch A Sketch the feelings of a nation with one performance.

A hamstrung mood, lots of shortcomings. It’s tricky – a bit like writing this full column without using the letter E – but not impossible. And still, with all that, Slovakia shouldn’t stop us.

Source: theguardian.com

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