Ill Discipline Kills England on Gloomy Night

England 0-1 Denmark

Harry Maguire’s first-half red card came just two minutes before Denmark earned and converted a penalty which proved the only goal of the game. Full-debutant Reece James got himself sent off after the final whistle too, further highlighting a discipline issue that England will have to contend with.

Within an hour of the full-time result on Sunday, when England beat the world’s top-ranked side Belgium, a Twitter account was created under the imaginative username of ‘@GarethMountgate’. The ‘Southgate Out’ community piped up in amusement, with the account satirically playing off the England manager’s continued selection of — as per the name — Mason Mount and other supposedly over-trusted players.

Without making these individuals the undeserving scapegoats, Southgate’s selection for this fixture with Denmark included the same two-man midfield that struggled to impose themselves in the Copenhagen stalemate last month (in Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice). Retained too were continually scrutinised goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, and Mount on the wing, picked ahead of more established names like Jadon Sancho and — more pertinently — Jack Grealish. It seemed Gareth had out-Garethed himself. This time it didn’t pay off.

England huffed and puffed in this game, took up good positions and created some decent openings, but individual errors kill football matches. They killed England on this truly forgettable night at Wembley.

There were signs right from the start that something about Harry Maguire was not quite right. His touch was off, his focus compromised. On 31 minutes, he earned himself a second yellow for a naïve lunge following a poor moment of miscontrol. Off he ambled, looking sorry for himself in what is a nightmarish spot of form for him at present. England’s night suddenly got a whole lot harder.

Play paused for a while as treatment was given to the man Maguire had fouled, Kasper Dolberg. Southgate called his more senior players over and told them to get reset into what would now have to be a 4-4-1 formation. Ainsley Maitland-Niles made way for Tyrone Mings. Play resumed. Not a minute had been played before England had conceded a penalty.

The football world didn’t see Kyle Walker’s challenge as a deserving spot-kick. However, that felt like an almost irrelevant issue. The point was this. England had given the referee the opportunity to award a penalty against them within a minute of the restart. Christian Eriksen awaited. 100 caps and 33 goals. Make that 34. Down the middle, Pickford out-foxed. A tough night continued to unravel further for England and Gareth Southgate.

England saw most of the ball, but Eriksen looked the man in charge. Off the ball he was a nuisance to Southgate’s side. Towards the centre-backs he drifted to pick up the ball. Past the wingers he ran to offer an option. He wasn’t Xavi pulling the strings on an elite night of Champions League football. But neither did he need to be. England’s problems in big games have always come down to their lack of an effortless, metronomic midfielder. Eriksen is one of those players.

Among England’s better performers was Reece James, trusted rather surprisingly as the right wingback. Trent Alexander-Arnold is clearly the outstanding right-back in England and perhaps in Europe. But the Liverpool man is yet to stand out while on England duty. Is James a better fit? Walker did his prospects of further involvement with this team no harm at all, while Conor Coady was assured and assertive again on this, his third England appearance.

Harry Kane was too easily bullied out of the game by rough tackles and shoves here and there, but Marcus Rashford was the Three Lions’ disappointment of the night — despondent and risk-averse with the ball at his feet. Maguire got himself sent off on a horrific night for him personally. The Danes are the world’s 15th best team according to current rankings; England needed their senior figures to be up to the task against Kasper Hjulmand’s team. Only Walker turned up.

On a night when Belgium, France and Portugal all won — and all against quite testing opposition too — England were unable to back up their statement win over the Belgians with a victory over Denmark that looked much more within their grasp, on paper at least.

Southgate will no doubt be pilloried by many for not even giving Grealish a chance from the bench. England were crying out for a midfield-forward link. Could he have been that player? Southgate opted for Jordan Henderson instead. A top operator at what he does, but not adept at what Grealish does. England needed inspiration, not solidity.

Mason Mount’s header from a corner so nearly got England back level at 1-1, but Kasper Schmeichel’s point-blank save clawed the ball away and denied a now deserved equaliser. Throughout the night, it didn’t look like that equaliser was coming. This was one of those painstaking England defeats which meanders awkwardly to a loss that looked telegraphed even before half-time.

When referee Jesús Gil Manzano of Spain brought England’s troubled night to an end, he was surely doing just that. The night’s trouble had ended, right?

How wrong we can be with England. 20-year-old Reece James called Manzano’s refereeing into question with the sort of anger in the heat of the moment that have caused England to come unstuck during tournament matches in the past. The youngster was shown a red after the final whistle — England’s second sending off of the night. More naïveté from England, and yet another player that Southgate will feel has let him down in one way or another. Three red cards in four Nations League matches this season is a pretty damning record. Some will say “better now than next summer,” but that just doesn’t wash.

This had been a very positive international break for the Three Lions, but it ended in a very England way. The hardest work done; the final game proving a missed opportunity.

The England boss will talk about this defeat with nuance and with an attempt at finding the positive — of which there genuinely are some, just not many. The narrative though is that England’s progress post-Russia remains halted, as it was last month. A need for soul-searching after a succession of embarrassing defeats is not the position England find themselves in. But if discussions about reaching a Wembley final or even a Wembley semi-final next summer are to remain straight-faced and well-founded, players need to improve their discipline both on the pitch and off it, and the manager must find a way to ramp up performances and improve results.

Perhaps Denmark is just England’s bogey team. But wasn’t that Germany… and Romania… and Portugal… and Italy… and Croatia… and Iceland?

Photo Credits: Getty Images

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