On a night when Gareth Southgate handed out debuts to four players, England failed to make a winning return to the three-man backline that served them so well at the World Cup. Hosts Denmark had the better of a bitty game that always looked destined to end goalless.
Someone tweeted this week that Gareth Southgate’s job has resembled that of a teacher on a school trip during this England camp. Harry Maguire’s legal case. Kyle Walker’s needless red card. Then Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood’s hotel debacle. A strong Denmark side stood between Southgate’s group and a relatively unscathed coach journey home, albeit four pupils short.
Conor Coady and Kalvin Phillips were handed starts as they deservedly won their first caps, but the line-up was pulled together from whichever players of international quality were available. England weren’t hopeless in this 0-0 draw with the world’s 16th best side, but they were tentative, static and lacking in creativity in the final third. It was open without being stretched and England controlled the game without ever dominating it.
Kasper Dolberg fired over from a clear early opening, setting the tone for Denmark to create the majority of the chances. Minutes later he was there again, profiting from good work on the half-turn from Christian Eriksen and slamming a shot on target. Jordan Pickford — again selected ahead of the confident Dean Henderson and Team of the Year inclusion Nick Pope — justified his spot with a fine close-range save.
Proceedings went ambling slowly but surely towards half-time. Hardly anything of note had happened, but that which had happened had been caused or created by the home side. The Three Lions weren’t threatening Kasper Schmeichel nearly enough. Well, they weren’t threatening him at all.
The managers had their say in the respective dressing rooms while channels across the world switched to the advert breaks. Back on the pitch though, this really was a poor advertisement for international football. The clickbait, transfer-obsessed side of football has truly sucked the heart out of the sport, but England weren’t doing their bit tonight to reverse the now widely felt view that international football lingers well behind the domestic game in terms of quality, interest and relevance. Thank goodness no fans were allowed to witness this freekick-fest first-hand.
It has been a disappointing international break for Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, clearly still rusty having last kicked a ball at club level longer ago than any of England’s Premier League players. Off he went, replaced by Mason Mount — likely to suffer a fall in match minutes this season due to Frank Lampard’s lavish spending spree at Chelsea.
England began to move the ball a little quicker, and Denmark’s compact yet balanced system just wavered a tad. Raheem Sterling cut in and dug a tired shot out from under his feet, but Schmeichel had it covered. As one debut came to an end, another took over. With just over ten minutes left to play, Phillips made way for Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish. Many will feel he’d waited long enough for this moment, both in the match and in general.
Meanwhile, Belgium tucked away their fifth goal of the night against Iceland — a sure sign that whipping minnows in their Euro 2020 qualifying group had distorted the levels England were truly operating at.
They were at fault defensively as former Spurs player Eriksen was allowed to volley high over the bar as the ball dropped inside the box. He had squandered a huge chance for Denmark and he knew it.
Trent Alexander-Arnold — named PFA Young Player of the Year during the pre-match warmup but yet to star for his country — was replaced by a fourth and final debutant in the form of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, to see out the match on the right flank. However, it had been the left wing causing Southgate problems all night. From Eric Dier at the back all the way up to Sterling, via Kieran Trippier, injuries had meant no left-footed players could be deployed on that side. It looked lopsided because it was. Knocking the ball back to Pickford became England’s signature move.
As Denmark pushed their luck and looked to scramble home a winner, Trippier got ahold of the ball and hoofed it high into the night sky for the ever-available, ever-willing, yet shattered Harry Kane to chase. It had been a quiet, frustrating night for the England captain to this point, but you always sense that strikers of his competence will either get one chance or they’ll make one for themselves. Make an opening, he did. Score it, he didn’t… quite.
The ball bounced down and Schmeichel rushed out unwisely. Kane was first to it and rolled the ball spinning along the ground towards the goal. Mathias Jørgensen got back superbly and cleared it off the line. The block confirmed a drab showing would end just as it deserved to — without any sort of tangible talking point.
Coady bedded into an England back three as well as he does at Wolves; Phillips looked assured on the ball and in winning back possession; and both Grealish and Maitland-Niles made as much of their cameos as they could have done. Those are the positives to take from the first match England have failed to win in their last five outings.
England’s players will likely feel a sense of relief as they return to their clubs tomorrow. Gareth Southgate will probably feel the same way about them leaving him for a month. That seems rather telling, really. Granted, this was a tricky international break which fell at an awkward time between what are sure to be the two most demanding seasons in English football history for reasons entirely out of football’s control. But this has not been a positive week for the England team. It’s been embarrassing off the pitch and unconvincing on it.
All Photos: Getty Images