Experimental England Hold Italy in Molineux Stalemate

England 0–0 Italy

by Dom Smith — at Molineux

Of the 22 players who started the Euro 2020 final, only seven started here. It showed. It wasn’t for the want of trying, but both Gareth Southgate and Roberto Mancini used this sunlit Molineux matchup to experiment. In keeping with England’s two previous matches this week, it had the air of a preseason friendly about it.

There were 3,000 school kids permitted into the stadium as spectators despite UEFA ruling this match behind closed doors. They pushed their young voice boxes to the limit trying to force the ball over the line. It wouldn’t budge. Not for either team.

But 3,000 children are never going to fill a 31,000-seater stadium with raucous atmosphere. “We were back to that soulless experience we had through Covid”, Gareth Southgate told EnglandFootball.org after the match.

Jordan Pickford could scarcely have done more to keep England alive in the Euros finale at Wembley 11 months ago to the day. “They won the Euros and it hurt us a lot”, he told EnglandFootball.org last week.

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“Definitely, to get a result against them would be nice. For us, playing competitive matches for the bigger tournaments with the World Cup ahead of us just gives you that extra competition to help you progress.”

Pickford watched on from the bench as his deputy, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale, did his pitch to play in Qatar no harm at all with a busy and assured display. His trailing leg was crucial in keeping out Sandro Tonali from Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s wicked cross. And with the final action of the first period, he tipped Matteo Pessina’s fierce drive over the bar, before saving Manuel Locatelli’s effort from the resulting corner.

England allowed themselves to dream just two minutes into that ill-fated final when Luke Shaw leathered home. But it was Italy who nearly took a second-minute lead in warm Wolverhampton when Davide Frattesi clipped wide following a beautifully crafted through-ball by Locatelli. England enjoyed just 39 percent of possession in last year’s final — the lowest of any team in any World Cup or Euros final since the millennium. Their need for a calm, composed, metronomic midfielder is well documented and unlikely to be solved any time soon. Juventus’s Locatelli played that role with consummate ease, and his pass to Frattesi resembled Joshua Kimmich’s classy assist for Germany in England’s 1–1 draw on Tuesday.

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Southgate started two players called up on the back of excellent seasons in Italy’s Serie A: Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham. This was a chance to try those pushing for a more permanent place in the starting XI. And although this display was again far from vintage England, they did create chances and they did cause Italy one or two tactical problems. Abraham was only denied by a Locatelli block when he profited from a rotten Gianluigi Donnarumma pass. Put through by captain-on-the-night Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount then crashed the bar with a long shot that had Italy’s very long goalkeeper beaten.

The temperature dropped and the players changed ends and England looked to push ahead in this third Nations League group encounter. Raheem Sterling, for all his searing quality and constant flurry of goals, has never been a clinical finisher. He shanked over from no more than two yards, then tested Donnarumma a minute later at the end of a patient, sustained England attack.

England know how to get out of a hole with their leader and talisman Harry Kane on the pitch. Less so without him. It was perplexing then as to why Kane joined Kalvin Phillips and Jarrod Bowen as 65th-minute substitutes. Abraham has been a Roman gladiator this term and deserved to stay on.

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Jack Grealish felt like England’s best hope as a creative attacking outlet — and he had fully merited his start after a decent cameo in Budapest and a very impactful one in Munich. But his cultured touch and his supercalves are not boundless in what they offer England — one of the favourites to win the World Cup in five months’ time. This was a performance to tilt the Grealishometer back to ‘impact sub’. Slower and safer here.

Grealish stayed on and England stayed in the mood to nick a winner. When Kane and Sterling eventually depart international football, they’ll do so as one of England’s greatest-ever attacking partnerships. They jinked into the box with a set of cute, intricate passes but Kane could only fire over off balance.

Italy sniffed around too, and Tomori had to dive in to prevent a one-on-one. But if this game had been twice the length there still wouldn’t have been a breakthrough.

“I think [a draw] was fair on the clear chances created”, said Southgate. “I think we were the dominant team in the second half, and that’s a period where if we’d had a full house, that does make a difference. Very hard for the players today, but I thought they really stuck at it. Their commitment and the quality of their play was very good.”

“Very good” is pushing it. This occasion reminded everyone that matches in empty stadiums are like watching a different sport altogether. A worse sport.

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