What’s sexy, and what isn’t, in football this week…
What makes the striker’s international resurrection so remarkable is that his move to Toronto FC in 2014, aged 31, looked every bit the textbook final payday that would precede a uneventful fade into footballing irrelevance. But Defoe has proved a lot of people wrong since returning to England. For instance, it had also been suggested in the past that this little man was not equipped play a lone striker role, but he did it with skill against Lithuania – just as he has for Sunderland all season. A goal and a man-of-the-match display against the minnows surely banks his place in next England squad, whether Harry Kane is fit or not.
Since the end of England’s golden generation of centre-backs – Terry, Ferdinand, Campbell, King et al – there have been plenty of successors (Cahill, Jagielka, Smalling, Jones et al) but no one has really nailed down the role. There’s an opening for the right candidate – perhaps more openings then we thought given the switch to a three-at-the-back formation for the Germany game – and Keane sailed through his audition. The 24-year-old Manchester United reject has had plenty of opportunity to prove his defensive mettle for Burnley this season, but for England he also showed an assuredness on the ball that bodes well for his international future.
Despite one defeat and one fairly uninspiring victory, England’s new coach came through the international break with his reputation unscathed. Based on how his recent predecessors fared, this must rank as a success. Most encouraging about Southgate’s England is the semblance of an attempt at a defined playing style. A patient, attractive, dare we say it, more ‘continental’ approach. Whether this works out or not (it didn’t seem to do Middlesbrough much good), it’s at least something we can all get behind for now (and possibly more so than we would have done with Sam Allardyce’s direction for the national side).
It does gets boring to bemoan the bigotry among England’s (especially travelling) support after all these years, but not as boring as the bigotry itself. Booing of national anthems, gloating about wars, chanting about the IRA – the tired old targets of the mindless minority are about as relevant to England’s current reality as Barry Venison. As a nation, the English suffer enough humiliation from their football team’s performances as it is. Do we really need to be further embarrassed by the team’s support? When we are forced to witness Germany’s fans applauding God Save the Queen, immediately followed by England’s support booing Das Deutschlandlied, the answer is evidently yes.
When Lithuania’s coach Edgaras Jankauskas said he was “proud” of his team despite their 2-0 defeat and took several “positives” from the loss, most striking was how closely those comments mirrored Southgate’s post-match analysis following England’s defeat to Germany. We have entered a phase where England have become the plucky outsiders, and where a defeat against a “top” team can be considered a success, as the 1-0 reverse at Signal Iduna Park was by many. This is probably good news for Southgate, who may be spared the unrealistic expectations that tormented previous managers, but it’s not so great for the sexiness of the Three Lions brand.
This was a rare international break in which nobody connected with the England team made themselves look like a complete pillock (fans aside). However, the goalkeeper still fails to completely convince. Against the Germans, Hart’s misplaced punch created a chance for Julian Brandt, while against Lithuania he was almost left red-faced by a bungled attempt to deny Vykintas Slivka before John Stones tidied things up. Hart’s kicking wasn’t great either. (Pep Guardiola might have been right about that.) On the plus side, Southgate clearly sees Hart as his number one (and even made him captain). It would nice if the keeper’s next move at club level fully restores a self-confidence that still feels fragile.