As we head into another World Cup, six years on from wedding suits and dad-band beards and being nice, Gareth Southgate’s England have once again achieved the remarkable feat of uniting a divided nation. Although, unfortunately for Gareth Southgate’s England the one thing the nation appears to be united on is: Gareth Southgate’s England aren’t very good.
This probably isn’t the rallying cry Southgate would have chosen. But say what you like, it is a rare skill. And Friday night’s defeat in Milan was at least new in other ways.
England didn’t muck around here. There was no feeling their way into the game or finding their feet. They were instead dreadful, shocking, fractured from the very first minute, and kept those levels low right to the end. This wasn’t a bitty, up and down performance. It was Total Mediocrity. Not to mention a moment where something seemed to shift.
We have a sense of an ending here, of Southgate’s own time, perhaps, and of the winter World Cup cycle; twin tides of Late Gareth that will meet in Doha. There is no way of avoiding this clinch-point now. It will still be Southgate’s England, still more or less this same team that kicks off in Group B against Iran on 21 November. What can he still wring out of it?
There are at least three questions that need answering before then. The first is the obvious one: why are England performing at their lowest level in the entire six-year age of Gareth? The simple answer is, well, it has been six years.
Southgate’s methods, his constancy, his way with his players gave England form and shape after a decade of incoherence. His skill is creating “a culture”, vibes, energy. His weakness is the kind of obsessive, high-end tactical fidgeting the best coaches in the world reel out in elite club football.
Up to this point the first of these has been enough to outweigh the second. But this team has grown old. The talent pool, much lauded, has not yielded a second iteration. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are still the attacking touchstones. Stones-Maguire-Walker is, yeah, basically it. And everything has its lifespan.
The second and most immediate question is: what can Southgate actually do about this? On current squad strength England should be perky contenders, daunting opponents in the quarters. Instead they look like a throwback version, England 1.0, haunted once again by the ball, terrified of space, tied tearfully to this flag-draped trial.
Most worrying are the obvious points of slackness and poor selection in the last two games. Although these are also the most encouraging parts, because they can be fixed. There were three areas in Milan that looked wrong from the opening minute.
The first was the left side, where both Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka were poor, Sterling producing one of those games where he seems to be playing in an oversized pair of crocs. Saka was out of position at left wing-back and made no impact. This set-up made less sense as the game went on. Why keep Sterling on the pitch for 90 minutes, while essentially throwing Saka away behind him, killing two of your own birds with one stone? Saka has been told to score like Sterling. He needs to be given the chance.
On the other flank the plan was for Reece James to stay wide, something Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola often ask of their wing-backs. But with England outmanoeuvred in midfield an elite manager would expect the wing-back to move inside, either to spot this himself or to have it pointed out by the furious arm-waggling man on the touchline. James stayed wide. Southgate scratched his chin. Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice continued to whirl about, menaced by too much slack air around them.
And thirdly, yes, we need to talk about Harry Maguire, who made no obvious mistakes, but was helped in doing so by passing the danger on to another part of the pitch. From the moment an early ball disappeared over Maguire’s head, forcing him to turn like a bog-ridden tractor and chase Giacomo Raspadori, he dropped that little bit deeper. Maguire has a habit of this, present in the odd backward step or just the angle of his body.
For a while it was a puzzle why England’s midfield looked so exposed, with something oddly familiar about Bellingham and Rice’s panicky state of exertion. It clicked before half-time. That’s what they looked like: like Fred and Scott McTominay, late Solskjaer era. This was referred pain, space opened up by a backline playing off the back foot. The gains of having a quicker, more mobile centre back must be obvious, whatever Maguire’s heading ability (and this is not 1986).
The third, more incidental, question is: does this late-onset decay invalidate England’s achievements of the past six years? Does it prove this was a wrong-headed, prissily-tailored experiment all along?. The obvious answer is: no.
This is how life works. You have a time. Then you stop having time. England 2018-2021 is an authentic era. It hasn’t been so good, without bad bits in between, since the days of Alf Ramsey. The England men’s football team can and will give you underachievement. That wasn’t it.
Don’t panic. This is good advice most of the time. But it is always a little later than you think. And watching this team struggle, feeling that World Cup horizon start to close, it feels as though even Southgate, master of caution, has nothing much left to lose.