England's defensive prowess has been impressive, and there were plenty of positives to come from friendlies vs. Netherlands and Italy, but going forward, Gareth Southgate has some fine-tuning to do in the next three months.
In a crunch week of international friendlies - as crunch as international friendlies can get, that is - the World Cup’s big guns took the chance to flex their muscles. Spain showed off a revitalized Andres Iniesta in Dusseldorf, the Barcelona star demonstrating that rumors of his demise have been exaggerated, before cutting Argentina to shreds in Madrid.
Germany showcased their impressive squad depth in games against the Spanish and Brazil, while the latter proved themselves that there is far more to their side than just Neymar. A Lionel Messi-free Argentina cruised past Italy in Manchester, while England...were England.
England were England. Maybe not the England that the world remembers from tournaments past, they’re a long way from Graham Taylor’s hoofball merchants of Euro ’92, but Gareth Southgate is leading the Three Lions to the logical conclusion of the current generation.
Friday’s win over the Netherlands showed that Southgate has created a team which is far from actively bad. Clean sheets against Germany, Brazil and the Dutch show a defensive solidity which is far greater than the sum of its relatively modest parts, although the lack of a single outstanding candidate for the number one jersey remains an issue, as does the constant insistence on tinkering rather than developing a consistent trio in the middle - slight confusion showing up early on Tuesday night when John Stones spend the first five minutes looking utterly lost.
It’s in going forward, though, that Southgate’s England are going backward. The system was described by one player this week as Guardiola-esque, but it lacks the players with the qualities that make the Catalan’s Manchester City side so dominating, so ruthlessly efficient. The influence is clear in the play in England’s own half, Jordan Pickford rarely punting long on Friday, but a Guardiola-lite ideology with Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at its heart is just toothless.
England’s Euro ’16 team spent game after game passing the ball around 40 yards from goal, floating the ball gently out wide for full-backs to sprint to the byline and completely failing to find a teammate in the box. Usually because there weren’t more than one or two white shirts there, but also because...well, have you seen Kyle Walker cross on the run?
Teams with even an ounce of defensive quality know that they just have to hold a deep line to keep England at an arm’s length. While those clean sheets against Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands look good on paper, but there was always a feeling that those teams (except the Dutch, who are abysmal) had at least one gear to shift up into.
England have nothing, nowhere to go. Harry Kane is one of the world’s best strikers, but what will he do when he’s getting the ball 35 yards from goal and surrounded by defenders? Marcus Rashford is a star, but he’s going to spent the summer running into thick, massed banks of defenders. He’s not built for that, and nor is his game.
Any Guardiola-lite system relies on true playmakers - a David Silva, a Kevin de Bruyne, even a Christian Eriksen, or Mesut Ozil. Look around the Premier League’s top teams, all of them have that pure creator, that Cesc Fabregas or Paul Pogba. These are the players who make an attack tick and unlock stubborn defences...and England don’t have one.
The closest available option, the Eriksen-lite for the Guardiola-lite, is Adam Lallana. Lallana, who has played just 214 league minutes this season. But his injuries, and lack of game time for Liverpool owing to them, mean that he’s out of any kind of touch and barely likely to get a look-in to a first-choice Southgate lineup. Instead, it’s death by Henderson and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Fine players in their own right (fine being the operative word, in that fans are most likely to say ‘ugh, fine’ if they see them on a team sheet), but never likely to play that defense-splitting pass, or put a team on the back foot and give Kane room to work in.
Vardy looked dangerous against Italy, tearing into some of Europe’s most vaunted defenders, but no formation featuring both a back three and Kane will have space for him - and even his goal, as well taken as it was, owed as much to Italian defenders switching off as it did to any playmaking work from the midfield.
Four goals in six games, including two against Slovenia and Lithuania, tell a troubling story. It would be some twist ending if England went the distance in Russia.