aWe’re heading into another World Cup, after six years of wedding suits and dad’s beards and, being nice, Gareth Southgate’s England have once again achieved the remarkable feat of uniting a divided nation. Although unfortunately for the England of Gareth Southgate, the one thing the nation seems to be united in: Gareth Southgate’s England is not very good.
This may not have been the cry of the crowd that Southgate would have chosen. But say what you like, it’s a rare skill. and Friday night defeat in Milan It was new, at least in other ways.
England did not get dirty here. There was no feeling on their way to the game or finding their feet. They were horrified, shocked, and broken from the first minute, and they kept those lows until the very end. This was no small performance, up and down. It was an average overall performance. Not to mention the moment something seemed to change.
We have a sense of an end here, for Southgate’s time, perhaps, and the Winter World Cup cycle; Twin tides for the late Gareth who will meet in Doha. There is no way to avoid this crucial point now. England will still be under Southgate, and it is still almost the same team that will kick off in Group B against Iran on November 21. What can he still take away from him?
There are at least three questions that need to be answered before then. The first is clear: why is England performing at its lowest level at six-year-old Gareth? The simple answer is, well, it’s been six years.
Southgate’s methods, consistency and his way with his players have given England shape and form after a decade of inconsistency. His skill is to create “culture”, feelings, and energy. His weakness is the kind of sophisticated tactical obsession that fills the world’s best coaches in elite football.
Up to this point, the first of those had been enough to outpace the second. But this team is getting old. The talent pool, which was critically acclaimed, did not result in a second iteration. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling remain the focus of the attack. Stones Maguire and Walker are, yes, basically. And everything has an age.
The second and most pressing question is: What can Southgate do about it? According to the team’s current strength, England should be a fun competition, fierce opponents in the quarter-finals. Instead, it looks like a throwback version, England 1.0, haunted again by the ball, terrified of space, bound in tears in this science-clad experience.
Most worrying are the obvious points of slack and poor selection in the last two games. Although these are also the most encouraging parts, they can be fixed. There were three areas in Milan that looked wrong from the first minute.
The first was the left side, where both Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka were poor, and Sterling was producing one of those games where he appears to be playing in a pair of oversized alligators. Saka was outside the left-back position and had no effect. This setting made less sense as the game went on. Why keep Sterling on the field for 90 minutes, while you throw Saka behind him, killing two of your birds with one stone? Saka was told to score like Sterling. He needs to give him a chance.
On the flip side, the plan was for Reece James to stay away, something Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola often request from their full-backs. But with England outplaying the maneuvering in midfield, the elite coach expects the wing-back to move in, either finding it out himself or being flagged by the angry man shaking his arm on the touchline. James stayed away. Southgate scratched his chin. Judd Bellingham and Declan Rice kept spinning, menaced by so much slack air around them.
And third, yes, we need to talk about Harry Maguire, who didn’t make obvious mistakes, but was helped in that by passing the danger to another part of the court. From the moment an early ball disappeared over Maguire’s head, forcing him to turn like a swamp-filled tractor and chase Giacomo Raspadori, that fell a little deeper. Maguire has a habit of on this, present at the odd back step or corner of his body only.
For a while it was baffling why England’s midfield seemed so exposed, with something oddly familiar about Bellingham and Rice’s panicked state. Clicked before the end of the first half. This is what they looked like: Like Fred and Scott McTominay, late Solskjaer era. This was the indicated pain, and the space was opened up by a back line playing with the back foot. The gains from having a faster, more mobile center back should be clear, regardless of Maguire’s header ability (and this isn’t 1986).
The third, more tangential question is: Does this late regression invalidate England’s achievements in the past six years? Does it prove that this was a wrong, overbearingly designed experiment all along? The obvious answer is: No.
This is how life works. You have time. Then you stop spending time. England 2018-2021 is an authentic era. It hasn’t been good, without the bad parts in between, since the days of Alf Ramsay. England’s men’s soccer team can give you an underachiever. This is not it.
Don’t panic. This is good advice most of the time. But it’s always a little later than you think. Watching this team struggle, and feeling the World Cup horizon begin to close, it’s as if Southgate, the master of caution, has little to lose.