Nations League nightmare sees England optimism evaporate ahead of World Cup

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 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

It is only 50 miles up the road from here to Trent Bridge and even before this unwanted fourth Nations League match of the month got underway, those fans with tickets must have been fearing they’d signed up to watch the wrong England team play. By full-time, there can have been no doubt.

The people of Wolverhampton had waited 66 years for the chance to watch England play in their home town but nothing they had witnessed from Gareth Southgate’s team across the past fortnight will have especially whet the appetite. Three matches, against Hungary, Germany and Italy, had brought a defeat, two draws, one goal and none at all from open play.

But even with that precedent set, they could not have forecasted this, an abhorrent, 4-0 humiliation which, for the first time, saw the mild grumblings of discontent on social media about Southgate’s supposed conservatism, or love of right-backs and Mason Mount, manifested among supporters in a ground.

There is no disputing the fact that this has been four games too far. There is, after all, something slightly unsettling about the football season still being in churn when the Lord’s bell is rung ahead of the first Test match of the summer, let alone by the time the second has been settled after a day five thriller. Harry Kane should be on a golf course by now, Jack Grealish in Ocean Beach (again).

But still, it is necessary to separate the farcical timing of these fixtures from the tepid fayre England have served up within them, performances of a team that appears to have taken a backwards step since last summer’s Euros final defeat, rather than being primed to go one better in Qatar, only five months from now.

England kept five clean sheets in a row to start Euro 2020, but that defensive solidity has disappeared. For the opener here, John Stones was slow to get organised as Callum Styles, of his former club Barnsley, stood over a free-kick, meaning that though the Manchester City centre-back won the header, he only nodded it closer to his own net. Kane, playing his 62nd game for club and country this season, swung a leg at it and missed, Kalvin Phillips (for whom, ironically, a lack of football has been the issue) couldn’t get across in time and Roland Sallai beat Aaron Ramsdale at the near post.

It was the kind of goal that teams concede when concentration is on the wane, so simple it almost feels as if it shouldn’t count. The kind, if we recall the way Stones switched off and allowed Mario Mandzukic to break English hearts in Moscow, that can knock you out of a World Cup.

It was frustrating and sloppy, but with 74 minutes of a campaign that has long outstayed its welcome still to play, should have been rectifiable, only for the lack of sharpness in the final third that has been a theme of these matches to surface once again.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

For a while, the home side struggled to get even that far, fans’ patience snapping exactly midway through the first half as Stones and Marc Guehi combined on halfway for what felt like their 400th square pass of the match.

Openings were gradually carved out and then, often voluntarily, shut off, with Jarrod Bowen particularly guilty of indecision.

The West Ham winger has been one of the positives on this break but twice dallied when he ought to have released Kane, as if momentarily forgetting he was playing alongside a forward with a slightly more prolific habit in front of goal than Michail Antonio.

Southgate, often criticised for his inability to change matches from the sidelines, tried to at the break, dragging Bowen and shifting to a back three as Raheem Sterling was sent on. Mount soon followed and then Phil Foden, too, leaving little doubt as to the manager’s desperation to head to the beach on a high.

Instead, it got much, much worse, England suckered twice more on the break, and booed loudly both as the game wore on and even more emphatically at full-time. In between, John Stones was harshly sent off for a second yellow card and Southgate earned himself a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing” from a crowd that had started the night still calling him “The One” when he opted to fill the gap by replacing Bukayo Saka with Harry Maguire. Even that didn’t work, as Daniel Gazdag chipped Aaron Ramsdale for a fourth to confirm England’s worst home defeat in 96 years.

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

It is with blessed relief to us all - fans, players, coaches, journalists, officials, burger van men - that this marathon men’s season is over (though spare a thought for the Molineux groundsmen, who, having prepared a pitch for Wolves’ final home match of the campaign a full month ago, are still not free to go on their summer holidays, with England’s women due here on Thursday to start their Euros warm-up against Belgium).

But just as messers McCullum and Stokes have shifted the entire mood around English cricket in the space of two weeks, Southgate and his side will fear that the mountain of goodwill and optimism built up over the course of six years has evaporated in a fortnight.

On June 13, 2021, England’s began their almost-glorious summer with a 1-0 win over Croatia at Wembley. Exactly a year and a day later, they finally head into this one only hoping time will prove a healer.

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