England hit new low with dire performance too bad to be boring

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Phil Foden;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Phil Foden</a> seemed uninterested in playing on the left wing.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>

So you probably already watched that, which means that if you’re still reading this you’re either a masochist, a sadist or a Scot. Is it really worth kicking this twitching corpse any further? Of course it is. We may have lost two hours of our lives, but in return we have gained five days of rich, delicious discourse. England: proudly taking with one hand and giving with the other since autumn 1966. Fingers on temples. Let the bloodletting begin.

And what was most immediately arresting about this performance was that it tasted a little different to the usual tournament gruel. Normally when England draw against a smaller nation in the group stage – think the United States in 2022, Scotland in 2021, Russia in 2016 – they are more guilty of being boring than bad, lacking in inspiration and invention rather than possessed of any particular malignance.

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But this was a performance that was actually too bad to be boring, a performance that actively courted our disapproval, a thin gruel laced with rat poison and carpet tacks. There were enough moments of amusing ineptitude on both sides to engage and titillate the neutral: Declan Rice passing the ball straight out of play for a corner, Marc Guéhi almost gift-wrapping Denmark a winning goal, Victor Kristiansen essentially forgetting that Kyle Walker existed.

There was an opening goal scored essentially by accident, and an equalising goal that was aesthetically perfect. There was a pitch that cut up like a shepherd’s pie. There was a roof that was left closed in sticky 25C heat. There was a Christian Eriksen free-kick from 45 yards that failed to clear the first man. It was essentially like watching one of those video cassettes they used to sell in Woolworths in the 1990s, with Danny Baker narrating, and a title like Oops! Football Bloopers 3.

Yet these were not the only grounds for the disorienting disposition of this encounter. Every time the men in white took possession of the sphere in the proximity of the left wing, they were consistently forced to funnel it, in turn, to the centre of the pitch, rendering most of their offensive efforts tortured, even disjointed. The side in red could simply defend their territory in the middle with impunity, secure in the knowledge their opponents were powerless to hurt them on their right verge.

That’s a pretty terrible paragraph, right? But that’s what happens when you wilfully restrict your options. You have Kieran Trippier, a right-footed left-back who doesn’t even bother trying to disguise the fact – no feint, no shimmy, no darting eyes – that he’s going to turn back inside. You have Phil Foden, a left-footed player with very little interest in playing on the left wing, who always wants to come short into the central areas. England are essentially a team playing on 70% of the pitch, which is like trying to write an entire paragraph – like I did above – without using the letter A.

England’s lack of natural left-backs is a long-standing issue, and will remain one until Luke Shaw returns. Which makes it all the more important that your left winger can supply width on that flank.

Instead Foden did his best work moonlighting in the right channel: an early shot that skimmed just over the bar in the first half, a fierce effort against the post in the second.

Jude Bellingham wandered over to the left a few times in the second half, but he wasn’t really interested in being there either. Eberechi Eze came on with 20 minutes remaining and immediately looked overawed, carrying a kind of heavy energy around him. Because after a while self-prophesy begins to take over. The patterns are drilled and hard-wired. England’s left wing becomes the sporting equivalent of The Zone in the sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic: a dangerous and forbidden area swarming with radioactive surfaces, deadly gunges and mysterious mutilations, where no incursion ever goes unpunished.

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And, of course, there are no quick fixes or magical solutions here. Perhaps we might idly wonder what an on-song Raheem Sterling or Jack Grealish might have offered in that area, or perhaps even the pace of a peak Marcus Rashford, but none of them really advanced much of a case to be here over the last few months of the season.

Anthony Gordon is the only specialist left-winger in the squad, able to cross off either foot, but is yet to emerge from the bench in two matches so far. Beyond which we are basically into the novelty options: Saka, Trippier as wing-back in a back five, Paul Scholes being hauled out of retirement for one last insult to his talent.

But we are where we are. And this is where England are: a team with game-changing individuals and grave imbalances in a competition where success is often defined by your weakest rather than your strongest link. There were loud boos at full time, but nobody who was paying attention to England over the last six months can possibly argue that this was a performance unrepresentative of them.

Indeed, if this game allows them to reset expectations and go back to pragmatic basics, it may well have been the only positive consequence of the evening.