It is pleasing that England haven’t pleased. For years, Wayne Rooney and other ex-England players have been calling for the national team to be cuter and savvier at key moments in big games. Gareth Southgate has clearly spent three years trying to tap into that, studying why tournament-winning coaches win, and why other capable teams come up short.
Southgate’s reputation in football has always divided opinion. His penalty miss that sent England out of Euro 96 to Germany took years to recover from psychologically. Southgate might well argue he’s yet to get over it. That tame spot-kick clearly didn’t help his cause. Neither did relegation with Middlesbrough, despite two mid-table finishes in the seasons before. The 2018 World Cup semi-final run was still not enough in some people’s eyes. England hadn’t beaten anyone good. Some felt that at the first sign of trouble, his side had crumbled.Embed from Getty Images
Whatever his reputation in footballing circles, for the 50-year-old to put his reputation on the line by adopting a rather dull, businesslike, possession-based approach to this tournament therefore takes immense courage. He has said already in this tournament that he is still looking for more from his fantastic attacking players. But not a great deal more. He would have liked them to have scored more than two in the group stage, but, by and large, things are going to plan. The hunt for silverware is still very much on.
A number of his players have looked weary at the end of a season like no other at the very summit of the very highest level. Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and captain Harry Kane are three in particular who look spent — their best football of the season perhaps behind them. But just enough of the Three Lions have been at the races, helping England to top Group D with little fuss, bar that night against their noisy northern neighbours.
Raheem Sterling is one who has paid back the faith that Gareth Southgate placed in him. One goal in 16 for Manchester City leading up to this tournament saw him enter the Euros in pretty poor form, at least by his high standards. His selection has paid off though; he’s scored both of England’s two goals at this tournament so far. When called upon, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has also led by example, making a few excellent saves and producing some superb long passes on his way to three clean-sheets from three.Embed from Getty Images
There are however those who feel that England are yet to truly test themselves. Their opener may have been against Croatia who knocked them out of the World Cup three years ago. But they are left looking a little more feeble than they did, following the retirements of vital trio Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Rakitić and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić. England stuck to Plan A and won professionally.
Scotland and the Czech Republic have both enjoyed real growth over the past two years or so, but neither were expected to beat England. The opposite was expected — England delivered only once. Minimalist again, but further examples of this England doing just enough.
Past England teams have fallen into the trap of going too far the other way. There were some moments of rich quality from Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England, from Fabio Capello’s England, even during Roy Hodgson’s four-year reign. But rarely were England good enough to purr and dazzle for a full match. Never for an entire tournament.Embed from Getty Images
Southgate has noted this, and risked calls of wasting a wealth of talent in search for balance, control and ball retention, to mask a defence that he rightly fears would struggle when counterattacked by Serge Gnabry, Kai Havertz and Leroy Sané. Pretty un-English, that. Yet those concerned that attacking vigour might be forgone as a result have been vindicated. The Three Lions progressed the ball up the pitch against the Czech Republic slower than any side in any other match at the Euros so far. Pragmatic and cautious or not, you’d be hard-pushed to argue that was entirely by design.
Given how safe England were against Croatia and how lethargic England they against Scotland, considerable pressure mounted for Jadon Sancho to be included in Southgate’s line-up against the Czech Republic. 16 goals, 20 assists, and a trophy this season for Borussia Dortmund had gone largely unmentioned by the Premier League-obsessed England fans all year, only for his cause to be pushed once Phil Foden had struggled to impose himself on the tournament.
Bukayo Saka it was who came in though, along with Jack Grealish ahead of Mason Mount who is isolating for infamously perplexing reasons. Both Grealish and Saka shone against the Czechs. Saka started the attack and Grealish provided the assist for Raheem Sterling’s goal — indeed, the game’s only goal. The news cycle is turned over at rampant pace at major tournaments. The clamour will now be for both to retain their places at the round of 16. For whatever reason, Sancho is not in Southgate’s favour and so not in his primary plans. His name is pushed back even further in the pecking order.Embed from Getty Images
Ultimately, the nation finds itself at a bit of a crossroads ahead of a blockbuster round of 16 match against vintage rivals Germany. The question fans across the country must ask themselves is simple. Do you wish to be suitably entertained by England, or do you want England to win a major tournament? There is no right answer — meaning Twitter will tell you there absolutely is a right answer. The caveat is that you can’t have both. England just aren’t good enough for that.
But they are absolutely good enough to offer a bit more interest going forward. They have more gears to find. Perhaps not fifth or sixth gear — we’re enjoying the England clean-sheets. But third gear would be nice, if just for the memories.