Stodgy England toil in cold footballing custard but the message is don’t panic

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

How to control the narrative, how to cool the air, to reverse the fevered expectation of an early tournament romp? Well, that was certainly one way.

Who knows, perhaps there was an element of masterful long-game vibes-chess about England’s performance against the USA in the gleaming shell that is Al Bayt stadium.

There were boos at the end – rolling boos, impressively engaged boos – as Gareth Southgate offered a furrowed, headmasterly wave.

This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

“I thought that was a really, really good match and both teams played really well,” the manically over-excited stadium announcer declared over the ear-splitting PA.

But, the manically over-excited stadium announcer was wrong.

In reality this was 70 minutes of cold footballing custard, jetlag-ball, football played by a man struggling to escape from his sleeping bag. This was a Satanic Derby that saw only one team, Gregg Berhalter’s perky USA, produce any real sense of rhythm and thrust.

At times in the first half, as England ambled vaguely, it felt like we were watching a kind of performance protest, an England team standing bravely against the basic idea of this World Cup as an entertainment product.

Related: ‘We’re on track’: Southgate shields England players after tame USA draw

Maybe, that first half seemed to say, it is simply wrong to enjoy yourself, to play with any joy or freedom in these lighted mausoleums. This was one angle England had covered.

At the end of which, well, what exactly? England are also top of the group and all-but through to the last-16.

England have never won all three group games at a tournament where they ended up progressing to a decent outcome. It rarely happens for anyone.

The message, after a night of stale televised product, should be: don’t panic. Southgate has been around long enough to have acquired entrenched opponents, observers who just seem bored of this, who crave something different.

It has, after all, been six years. But he has also been good enough to merit a little trust, a little more in the way of respect and good grace.

The debate about England, the debate about Southgate, which is really a debate about the confusions, the solipsisms, the deep feelings of being English, will of course rage on. The reality is England are pretty good, but not the best. Good enough, if they find their rhythm to edge though right to the end.

Mason Mount shows his frustration for England
England appeared to play without any sense of freedom or joy in their draw with USA. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Some say the confusion is fuelled by that fond old fever dream of English exceptionalism, the idea because England are now good England must, as of right, be the best, be English-good, which is the best good there is; that only inequity and folly prevents the natural state of things, unmanacled English supremacy. Take the handbrake off. Unleash Albion. Take back control. It rarely, if ever, works like this.

The fact is England have been stodgy for a while. Iran is now their only win in eight games. The sense of entropy in the summer was dismissed as fatigue. Perhaps it has more to do with the end of something, players ageing together, the balance of the team not right where Southgate has tried to refresh.

Certainly something seemed to spook them here. Al Bayt is built in the shape of a Bedouin tent. A vast, pointless, oddly haunted Bedouin tent, an expression, above all, of Pharaonic-scale vanity, sport as despot theatre.

Related: England 0-0 USA: player ratings from the World Cup Group B game

But it does certainly look like a tent. And a tent designed by Albert Speer, no less. This is not a misprint. It was the firm of Albert Speer Jr, son of the architect of the Third Reich, that just seemed like the best fit to the Supreme Delivery Committee, the best vibe, the best shout.

Presumably Albert Speer III is being lined up for Saudi’s 2030 gig.

There was the now-familiar pre-match show, with a giant exploding World Cup trophy, and a sense of forced and cajoling gaiety, right down to the shots of David Beckham, despots’ glove-puppet, beaming handsomely in whatever VIP box he now occupies. “Qatar Energy” read the scrolling advert boards at the perimeter. This was Big Qatar Energy.

After which, nothing much happened.

Harry Kane should have scored after nice work from Bukayo Saka. The move was made by Jude Bellingham, driving on into a cute half-forward position. This is the new gear England are searching for, but they also lose something with that extra juice from midfield. Southgate likes control. Football is control. England didn’t have control in the centre.

Declan Rice sat deeper than Bellingham and often looked outnumbered. England struggled with shifting between phases of the pitch.

Without Jack Grealish or Phil Foden there is less in the way of angles and artistry on the ball when the spaces shrink, the range narrower.

Related: Edgy England on verge of World Cup last 16 after fortunate draw with USA

Kane didn’t touch the ball for 15 minutes in the first half. And in that period even the players’ faces began to sag. Rice, so upright and perky against Iran, chugging sleekly like a champion police horse, seemed gaunt and troubled, with too much space to cover, too many holes to block. For long periods USA dominated, forcing corner after corner. Frankly England seemed happy to walk away from the whole gruelling spectacle intact.

And perhaps it is a moment to reflect on the fact this is close to what we might have expected from this Narnia trip of a World Cup, a World Cup of bad energy and undercooked teams.

A quarter of all the games so far have been nil-nils.

And there are things England can do. Kane received some criticism for not scoring against Iran, despite playing well.

He barely figured here, resembling more than ever by the end a sad, noble cartoon lion. But he also has 17 goals in his last 20 caps. He will affect the game at some point. The midfield also looked too open. Perhaps the need to tinker and refocus will be of benefit.

A strange, mournful evening at another strange, tinny, haunted stadium. But tournaments are odd things even at the best of times. England will roll on.

Perhaps a little rage at the edges might even make this thing feel a bit more real.