Major Final Proves Elusive Once More As England Self-Destruct
England were the masters of their own downfall as a desperately poor performance sent them out of the Nations League Finals with defeat in extra-time to the Netherlands. They’ll need to reach a much higher level to have any chance of winning Sunday’s third-place match.
Despite Liverpool duo Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum appearing for the Netherlands, Gareth Southgate opted to rest all seven of his players involved in the Champions League final. That meant starts for Manchester City duo John Stones and Fabian Delph, who struggled for game time under Pep Guardiola towards the end of the season. Raheem Sterling captained his country for the first time, on the occasion of his 50th cap.
England created the game’s earliest chance with Harry Maguire volleying over the bar from a corner. But after this, the Netherlands found a foothold in the game and were able to keep the ball for sustained periods. Their opportunities to take the lead duly came, falling for attackers Steven Bergwijn and Memphis Depay to test the gloves of Jordan Pickford.
On the half-hour mark, an untimely stumble from Ajax’s young defender star Matthijs de Ligt allowed Marcus Rashford, pressing high, to nick the ball inside the box. De Ligt’s desperate lunge to recover the ball upended Rashford and earned England a penalty so blatant that VAR wasn’t even used. The defender was shown a yellow card when perhaps a red seemed more fitting, but England still had a spot-kick.
In Harry Kane’s absence, Rashford stepped up to roll a precise strike into the net, sending goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen the wrong way. Gareth Southgate’s side held on, closing out the first period with a slender 1-0 lead as de Ligt headed wide from a corner with the half’s final action.
Harry Kane replaced Rashford at the break, still struggling after he was denied a second goal in the box by a crunching challenge from Denzel Dumfries. Kane replaced Sterling as England’s captain and his side again came out the blocks much faster.
Sterling and Ross Barkley were causing problems in their hold-up play and ability to receive the ball and turn swiftly. Sterling was denied by Cillessen from a tight angle, before Harry Maguire again miscued a volley when unmarked, following another corner.
As the game ran into its later moments, lethargy at the back was highlighted with a number of very basic errors from the Three Lions’ backline. Kyle Walker, filling in for the two centre-backs in the middle, was robbed of the ball, leaving Depay in on goal inexcusably. He shot from range and Pickford parried. The former Manchester United attacker lined up for an acrobatic volley on the rebound but didn’t connect and England survived. But they were never going to survive forever.
John Stones completely lost de Ligt from a corner for the second time in the game, and the towering teen duly accepted the gift, plunging a header into the bottom corner. The Netherlands were more-than-deservedly level.
And then with 83 minutes gone, England thought they had pinched a place in Sunday’s final. Barkley played substitute Jesse Lingard in perfectly, and the United midfielder scraped the ball past Cillessen – the England fans erupted into ecstasy. VAR ruined the party though, cutting the wild celebrations short and deeming Lingard offside in a call that seemed tight at best and wrong at worst.
Not a minute later, the drama of tense tournament football ramped up even more as the Dutch claimed Ben Chilwell had handled the ball in the area. This time the correct decision was undoubtedly made – no penalty, still 1-1.
Kane, Lingard and Depay all had chances to put their respective nations into the final, as seven minutes of stoppage-time played out in entertaining fashion. All three fluffed their lines though, with Harry Maguire a relieved man not to have cost his side dearly in frankly presenting that final chance to Memphis Depay.
The whistle sounded – it was extra-time in a semi-final for England once more.
When play resumed, Depay’s free-kick stopped dead in Pickford’s grateful grasp as Holland pushed and pressed to make good on their ascendency.
John Stones’ worst moment of a dismal night came in a period of seemingly no pressure at all. He received a pass from Harry Maguire in his own third and turned to face his goalkeeper. Instead of popping it back to Pickford, Stones tried a Cruyff-turn against the late great’s former team – not the smartest plan. Depay went through one-on-one again and somehow Pickford denied him. The rebound fell to Quincy Promes whose strike cruelly went in off a sliding Kyle Walker. Ronald Koeman’s side took the lead in extra-time thanks to a literal and metaphorical England own-goal.
It got even worse just after the interval in extra-time. Stones played a suicide pass for Ross Barkley, who was only able to present it to Depay whilst under pressure from Promes. Depay squared for Promes, who tucked the ball into an empty net and sent England crashing out of the Nations League Finals in a result totally of their own making.
In the end, there were just half-a-dozen defensive errors too many, and the Netherlands held on comfortably for an extra-time victory by three goals to one. England will face Switzerland in the third-place play-off on Sunday, but must lift themselves if they’re to avoid further embarrassment.