Gareth Southgate’s new England look worryingly free of energy and resistance | Barney Ronay

Estimated read time 5 min read

By the time the PA announcer had announced a “lap of appreciation”, with what seemed at the time to be viciously mocking levels of excitement, England’s players found themselves applauding a vast expanse of empty red plastic seats. One of the big fears with tournament football, among the better teams, is peaking too early. On that front, at least, England seem safe.

Instead they took the nuclear option, the ultimate dial-back, booed off by schoolchildren having lost 1-0 to an Iceland team that is now ranked 72nd in the world. And not just lost, but lost badly, like a team playing through a notably gruelling migraine.

A degree of listlessness is understandable. This isn’t quite launch day. England will fly to Leipzig on Monday. For now the players are at the pre-departure stage, vomiting up their air sickness pills, chomping on a final bonus square of army-issue sawdust chocolate, anxiously pawing at their parachute packs. Nobody wants to get injured now. The game did feel unnecessary, plonked at the end of a week of Big Brother style eliminations.

The problem for Gareth Southgate is that there are still hard issues to be resolved. Southgate has basically ripped this team up in the last few months and implanted something new, trusting himself to perform a kind of alchemy on the parts, to chuck a lightning bolt through this thing.

But there was basically nothing here, no pulse, tension, no sense of a system, or a range of weapons in play. Passes and combinations were missed or never attempted. It was at least a great game for people who didn’t take part. Conor Gallagher has never looked such an appealing prospect, a nasty, energetic, spiky presence.

And so we roll on all the same. Predicting success in any tournament is a foolish thing. England expects. England is generally wrong to expect. But England will still expect all the same. What is interesting this time is that, in theory, this team really does have a chance of winning these Euros. But they are also flawed. The ceiling is high. The ceiling also has holes in it.

The team has been chopped and changed a lot in search of solutions to the problems at left back, central midfield and central defence. The issue for Southgate in this defeat is that nothing was learned about any of these roles. Or rather, all the things that were learned were bad.

Marc Guéhi of England with the ballView image in fullscreen

Those areas of interest were filled by Kieran Trippier at left-back, who will start at the Euros, who is a warrior and a smart defender, but was poor in a team needing width.

In central defence Marc Guéhi must now be considered the starting centre back alongside John Stones. He’s good on the ball. He isn’t notably aggressive in the air. Iceland climbed over him a bit. It is hard not to see trouble ahead without at least one dominant presence in there.

Then, finally, we come to central midfield, the key to any tournament team, which felt unfilled at the start of the day, and remained so at the end. Kobbie Mainoo’s selection suggested he is in the catbird seat. Mainoo is a wonderful young player. But the double pivot with Declan Rice didn’t work here. Rice had to sit a little more. His surges were missed. And the spaces were just too big. Midfield was too friendly. Mainoo is an artist. England needed someone nastier, more furiously dedicated to filling the spaces.

skip past newsletter promotion

The worst part was the goal. Iceland eased through the England midfield without resistance, Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson veering into vast open reaches of lime green Wembley turf, Mainoo chugging back, Stones waiting too long to challenge. The shot was low and hard and into the corner. But it was all just too, too dead, free of energy, resistance, the things that make a team.

It will give Southgate the willies. This is what he fears, what he sweats over. Being open, flimsy and vulnerable. In the past opponents have remarked on the sheer muscle of the best Southgate teams, the sense of running into a wall of cement sacks. This was a physically slight England.

As for the covering presence next to Rice, nothing was really solved. The No 4 role (old school notation) is hugely complex. The angles are bespoke and unusual. The covering radar, the spidey-sense of where and how is vital.

In the absence of a specialist, England will now surely pack that area with more energy, the endlessly thrumming engine of a Gallagher, a pinch of Jude Bellingham at No 10 in place of Phil Foden, whose performance here is best erased from history, and where possible pixelated out of any surviving tapes.

The second half was if anything even worse, England’s stitching too lose, spaces too wide. Sometimes teams, particularly nice, mannered teams like this one, need to feel a little rage. Watching back a tape of this defeat should do the trick.

And so, on to Blankenhain. England still expects. England will always expect. It can, at the very least, expect a great deal more than this.


You May Also Like

More From Author