England get ready for the summer of Grealish as Euro 2020 approaches - The Warm-Up
Two wins in two for Southgate's entertainers, but that doesn't mean England have nothing to worry about. The defence is looking uncertain, and reinforcements will be needed. But above any concerns the manager and the country may have ahead of Euro 2020, at least Jack Grealish is ready to do his thing.
So that's that. England are now officially, fully, completely prepared for Euro 2020+1. A one-nil win over Romania to go with the one-nil win over Austria. And, perhaps, the emergence of a new tactical plan. Operation Grealish is coming.
Aston Villa's captain and this summer's coming transfer saga has been the big winner of England's friendlies. Helped by the extended rest granted to the Champions League finalists, Grealish started both games at no.10 and spent his time doing exactly what he's done all season in the Premier League: dance around mazily, get kicked, get up, get the ball back, repeat.
There's more to Grealish than getting kicked, of course. And defenders know it, which is why he gets kicked. But this is going to be a tournament of tired legs and tired minds, of clumsy tackles and poor decisions. Whether starting or arriving late in the game like some tiny-socked Gandalf, we'll be willing to bet everything in our pockets — that's one pound coin, a facemask, and a set of house keys — that we haven't seen Grealish win his last penalty of the summer. In the interest of cultivating an air of mystery, we will not be specifying whose house keys.
So Grealish is the good news. The bad… well, bad probably isn't quite the word, given that we're talking about two wins and two clean sheets. But Southgate came out afterwards to say England "needed to be better", and we're not going to argue with him. There wasn't much last night that will have scared England's group opponents, much less the teams lying in wait if England make the knockouts.
These pre-tournament friendlies are all about foreshadowing. About trying to trace the future echoes of the coming disaster, whatever that disaster may be. And Romania had more fun with England's defence than Southgate will have liked. Alongside Operation Grealish sits The Mings Question. Who knew Aston Villa would be so crucial to England's chances of glory?
Grealish aside, England's most impressive performers over these two games have been, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lads on the reserve list, all playing for that one late space. James Ward-Prowse took some tidy set pieces against Romania, while Jesse Lingard buzzed around with great purpose against Austria. Both could probably do a job at right-back if pressed.
Ben White was part of England's squad for Euro 2020
Image credit: Getty Images
And yet, both will be missing out in favour of Ben White. Now, Southgate's surfeit of right-backs meant he was under no pressure to select and like-for-like replacement, and that means we can draw wild, sweeping conclusions. This isn't just about filling a space. This is a window into the Southgate soul, a chance for us to see what's been keeping him up at night.
Lingard or Ollie Watkins would have been the pick of a happy man, relaxed about the rest of the team and looking for attacking options from the bench. Ward-Prowse? A little concern about his depth in midfield, a little appreciation of those set-pieces. But the selection of White, an excellent and versatile defender who can play in midfield and who was capless until last week, can only mean one thing. That big Maguire-shaped hole at the back is worrying Southgate just as much as the rest of the country.
Southgate: England 'more determined than ever to take the knee' at Euro 2020 despite boos
Taking A Knee, Taking A Stand
Obviously this wouldn't be an England game without something else bubbling away in the stands. Once again, England's players took a knee before kick-off, as they have done all year and will continue to do throughout the tournament. And once again, as has happened sporadically since fans returned, there was booing.
We don't have space for a full cultural close reading of the moment here, but we will note that, generally speaking, when the sentiment expressed is "We agree with you, we just wish you'd make your point some other way", this comes with the unspoken caveat: "that we can't see and makes no impression on us in any way and we can happily pretend doesn't exist". And that's not how protest works, lads. "Keep politics out of sport" always, always, always means "Keep politics I don't agree with somewhere I can't see them."
We will also note that you can safely ignore the more exciting complaint: "Help! My England team are under the thrall of a shadowy group of Marxists!" Apart from anything else, if the England team were infiltrated with revolutionaries intent on destroying the fabric of the nation, you'd expect them to make more fuss about an anthem literally called "God Save The Queen". Not the favourite institution of communists, nor the favoured emergency service.
Some fans booed the taking of the knee
Image credit: Getty Images
But you know all this, and so do the people booing, and so do the players and the pundits and everybody else implicated in this noisy argument. What was heartening to see was Southgate not just backing his players, as you'd expect from most managers, but also taking them and their position seriously. No management-speak, no compromise.
Most important thing for our players is to know we are totally united on it, we are totally committed to supporting each other, supporting the team. We feel more than ever determined to take the knee through this tournament. We accept that there might be an adverse reaction and we are just going to ignore that and move forward. The players are sick of talking about the consequences of should they, shouldn't they. They have had enough really.
And that, apparently, is that. The questions will doubtless continue to be asked outside the England squad, where there are newspapers to shift and anger to be stoked. But the England squad won't be taking any more questions about it, a statement that is, in its own way, just as pointed as the knee itself. It says: This argument, to knee or not to knee, is your argument. We've made our call.
USA! USA! USA!
While Europe was sleeping, there was a grand final happening. And happening. And happening a lot. The lead swung back and forth between the USA and Mexico, there was much onfield tension and even one or two minor scraps, and then, in extra time, a penalty.
No! Two penalties!
USA scored the first to take a 3-2 lead. Christian Pulisic tore off his shirt and did some shushing in the rambunctious style. Then Mexico missed theirs, in the 120th minute: a penalty that would have earned more penalties. And so the USA are the first Concacaf Nations League champions, a tournament given full justification by its delightfully stupid and stupidly delightful final.
But the player of the match was the referee. This is how you bring VAR back to the people. Draw that damned box as big as you can. Bigger. There you go. And then get those shoulders involved. You just know he made some great grunting sound as he windmilled this penalty into being.
IN OTHER NEWS
When local football meets industrial demolition work. Frankly, we're disappointed that nobody took advantage of the distraction to ping the ball over the keeper and into the net. He's miles off his line!
Get yourself in the mood for the Euros with some of the very best of Wales in Italy. A collection of John Charles' goals in Serie A. Delicious.
Two of international football's great traditions will run into each other this summer, as "Never write off Germany" gets tested against France and Portugal in the Group of Death. Here's Jonathan Wilson over at the Guardian, trying to make sense of Jogi Löw's final tournament squad. Although he rather overlooks one key issue: will we get one more big nose pick, for the fans?
Löw is a World Cup winner who helped to oversee the great stylistic transformation of German football and for that, he deserves enormous credit. But he also led Germany to their worst World Cup in more than eight decades and, given the extraordinary quality of players available, it is hard to avoid the sense that he has underachieved in recent years. These Euros will help determine his immediate legacy, but he occupies a curiously ambiguous place in football history.
And if you want a sneak peek at how Germany are looking, they've a friendly against Latvia this evening. Elsewhere Ukraine are warming up against Cyprus, and there's a whole load of AFC World Cup qualifiers as well.
Ben Snowball, who has never once been caught on international television picking his nose, much less eating it, will be here tomorrow.