If it was Gareth Southgate refusing to compromise, what are the alibis? What are the excuses? This is no longer summer, nor “just the League of Nations”. Nor is it a result of the England football team’s continued failure to win in this country since 1961, as this was not a particularly strong football team from Italy.
It no longer looks like a strong England.
And that, more than anything, is why this is now such a big problem. There’s more going on here than a bad run at the wrong time.
The Southgate team looks stale and disconnected, just as they arrive at a tournament that the Football Association had long envisioned as the culmination of an era.
It could very well be a Southgate time nadir. That will surely be the discussion after this monotonous 1-0 defeat to Italy which brings relegation from the League of Nations.
England had nothing like the kind of dexterity or directness of Giacomo Raspadori’s decisive goal.
They had very little of anything, plus too many worries for Southgate to try to figure out with just one game to go before the World Cup.
It was, at the very least, a regression, symbolized by the constant resort to set pieces and the use of a three-man backline that only radiates caution.
The team just didn’t seem to work.
This was most obvious in the general game.
The way Italy moved meant it was a game full of transitions, but that didn’t exactly translate to an open match for the most part. Much of the problem was how England tried to build the game. They do not. Anything resembling an attack came from a set piece. This was in part because, with no real skill in the middle, all the breaks were taken care of for the defenders. The game gradually became England forcing territory for better positioned set pieces. Maybe Southgate read too much Eddie Jones.
It’s notable to say that, given that this was a team with Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden, before it even got to Harry Kane, they made retreating a part of their game. The problem, however, was where they were playing.
Bellingham found himself having to cover a lot of ground, which often left a huge gap between him and Declan Rice. This gave Jorginho the space to make some passes that you wouldn’t normally associate with him. Meanwhile, Foden again felt like he was on a fixed line rather than the fluid striker we see switching positions at Manchester City.
A lot of that comes from training. The three-man backline dictates that many roles are filled out of tactical necessity, meaning there are no shorts or outlets for England’s array of attacking talent.
All are training.
Italy, by contrast, was all system. They had nothing like England’s talent, but they made it a game through their approach. There was a greater fluidity and idea.
There was also purpose.
Even the directness of Raspadori’s superb goal was something England were missing.
Far more alarming, however, was how a side built on top of this defensive structure was so easily opened.
That falls on Walker. He was very easily defeated by Leo Bonucci’s admittedly good ball over the top, and then easily avoided.
Still needed a special move from Raspadori, mind you. This must not be forgotten.
This meant that Southgate needed to change things up, which ultimately brought about a change of the three, as well as some attacking intentions.
There were finally some opportunities, with Gianluigi Donnarumma being forced to make strong saves for the first time.
There were echoes of the away game against Germany, although it’s not something England should want to make a habit of going to the World Cup: they only looked dangerous when they were behind.
Even so, it’s hard not to get the feeling that Southgate will be far more concerned about the chances they spent on that final spell.
The precocious Wilfried Gnonto was certainly enjoying the space.
England just looked cramped.
Italy alone is the best example of how World Cup history was lit up by teams that suddenly came together out of nowhere – but it’s an alarm in itself that England now have to point this out.
They didn’t go anywhere. They should be in the final stages of a project that has been coming together for so long.
At the moment, despite so many advocates uniting, it seems to be falling apart.