By 90Min
June 07, 2019

After a damning return - can something return if it never really left? - to the dark days in the streets outside the Estadio D. Alfonso Henriques Stadium before England's UEFA Nations League semi-final with the Netherlands, there was a predictable effort to maintain that narrative for the on-field antics. 

Except, this time, rather than condemning such a return, some were actively begging for it. Enough of this flippy-flappy nonsense at the back, they desperately cried, GET RID. GO LONG. RESET. SET UP SHOP. Anything to stop this modern monstrosity.

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This was, I hope obviously, a gross overreaction to a game that meant as much as you wanted it to mean. If you wanted 'It' - and by 'It' I mean basically any semblance of silverware, even a glorified version of 'Le Tournoi' - to 'Come Home', then it might've meant a lot. In fact, if England had won, it definitely would've done.  

But, because they lost, it can now be just as easily filed under 'geed up friendly'. Which is why what we definitely, definitely shouldn't do is use it as an excuse to rip up the current philosophy in favour of that age-old model of 'propah' English football.

Indeed, after all that Nations League bashing, it should be reiterated that, to get to this point, the Three Lions beat both Spain (comfortably) and last summer's World Cup finalists Croatia. Granted, some further semi-final demons could've been conquered on Thursday, but many had already been ousted when Harry Kane and co romped to a 2-1 comeback back in November. 

Yes, there are problems, some of them recurring, but almost all of them come down to personnel rather philosophy. Yes, John Stones, this is where you look away.

Naturally, the Manchester City man was the headline act this morning, proliferating the papers with all kinds of 'howler' variants. And, clearly, Stones is still not the defender we thought he would be. He may never be and, while he was not aided by his lack of match sharpness, that is a paradigm that starts and ends with his quality, and lack thereof. But it wasn't just Stones clogging up England's mojo. 

If you look at the starting XI from last night, there were at least five, maybe six names who both should not have been there and would not have been there, were it not for extenuating circumstances.

Some of these circumstances were under Southgate's control, such as the benching of every player involved in the Champions League final, and they were among the biggest misses, particularly Jordan Henderson, Harry Winks and Joe Gomez.

And, while the Gaffer's decision to do so was not incomprehensible, both Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum have played more games than all three this season, and they seemed fine. Maybe that UCL victory didn't mean as much to them, you know, on account of their forrinness? Or maybe they're just professionals.


Combine those chosen absences with ones that were enforced, like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and you're left with probably the worst starting England midfield since the heady days of Leon Osman receiving his two solitary caps circa 2012. 

That is not to admonish Declan Rice for his potential, but he is still not evidently ready to be starting a game of such 'magnitude', even if he was probably the best of the three. Which is not the greatest badge of honour when the remaining duo comprises Fabian Delph and Ross Barkley, neither of whom are international footballers.

Delph has the temperament, but not the talent, while Barkley has the opposite skill set. As you'd expect, that combination was not easy on the eye. 

The stretched out point of all this being as follows: why would you judge the validity of England's current tactics in a game in which they weren't being carried out by the actual team.

Now, people may counter that by saying Barkley, Delph, Kyle Walker and Stones were all present in their previous Nations League elimination clash against Croatia, and they'd be right.

However, not acknowledging the fact that there were caveats to those appearances, all four players have been on downward trajectories since that game. 

Of course, their would-be usurpers are not the finished article yet either - although Trent Alexander-Arnold is pretty bloody close - but they at least appear far more capable of successfully executing Southgate's wishes.

No, Winks is not Frenkie de Jong, but as it stands he is England's answer to a player of that mould and, after showing up in Madrid with 21 minutes under his belt from the previous 10 games and still emerging as the team's best player, he clearly has the bottle.

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Add to that the emerging presence of Phil Foden, who certainly seems to hold more of Guardiola's trust than Stones these days, James Maddison, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho, who was once again electric, and the future appears bright once more.

The questions over mentality are still there, as are the ones about flexibility and depth across the park, but there is no need to panic, nor rip up the work Southgate has done to this point. It is still a work in progress, but one that requires patience and belief, rather than short-term fixes to long-standing issues that are already halfway to being broken down.

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