An hour into this reality check for England a young darling of the crowd dressed for action in David Beckham’s old No 7 shirt and strode on to save the day. Another young idol traipsed off. Jack Grealish was roared onto the pitch by England’s fans but Phil Foden’s removal was simultaneously unpopular. This, surely. was a kind of paradise. Here were England shuffling the pack of their young stars with half an hour still left to break Scottish resistance and restore the natural order. It never happened.
Grealish did his Grealish thing, dribbling, pausing on the ball, linking play, probing the left-hand side rather than the middle and getting kicked a lot. But the expected overwhelming deluge of attacking talent never came and Scotland left Wembley deservedly proud of their first point in the competition.
England’s challenge is no longer to find a bench long and comfy enough for all their spare attackers. Five days after being garlanded for their mature win over Croatia, they were booed by their own fans for failing to win the ‘Battle of Britain.’
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"Our fans are entitled to react however they want," Gareth Southgate said, phlegmatically. "We’re disappointed with our own performance. We’re expected to beat Scotland. We totally understand the reaction tonight but we’re still on course to qualify."
This wasn’t the collapse of hope. The booing by some home supporters was a melodramatic response to the inability to deal with a controlled, clever, energetic Scotland side, who embraced the hoopla, unlike Southgate’s men.
It wasn’t one of England’s calamitous nights. But the performance and the reaction showed the depth of Southgate’s task. Finding the ideal starting XI from this squad is proving harder than it looks. And perceived mistakes in team selection and substitutions are capable of whipping up an instant storm of condemnation. Some bare facts about this let-down for England in their second Wembley group match….
Harry Kane was innocuous again and replaced for the second consecutive match. England’s midfield play - so measured and rhythmic against Croatia - was flat and slow against the Scots. Adding Reece James’s aggression to the right-back slot and playing an authentic left-footer (Luke Shaw) on the opposite side had no great effect. The outstanding full-back on the pitch was Kieran Tierney, who missed the Czech Republic game, and exemplified Scotland’s zest in the latest instalment of this 149-year rivalry.
At the final whistle John Stones thrashed the ball into the crowd in frustration. Usually England start tournaments slowly and then pick up. This time they impressed against Croatia but were then lifeless in game two. Stones’ anger will have been multi-layered: with the lack of goals, the loss of momentum, his own missed headed chance, the negativity the result will generate.
England’s honeymoon is over. Southgate’s exemplary statesmanship has elevated this squad, politically and socially. The players are technically and tactically literate: Champions League-grade. A surprise after half-time though was that they were incapable of correcting the mediocrity of the first-half, except in little bursts. Game management has been a notable attribute of this England side. Since 2018 and the World Cup in Russia they have looked more like a mainstream European power, comfortable in possession and adaptable. But against Scotland the switch-up never came, which means Southgate already has a problem he wouldn’t have expected to face so soon after earning praise for the Croatia win.
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First: what to do about Kane. Physically, England’s captain looks sluggish. Mentally, he may be lost in Tottenham’s managerial hall of mirrors. Who wouldn’t be distracted by a desperate urge to make a £100m-plus move? Elsewhere Southgate is managing the returns of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson. Against Croatia playing two defensive central midfielders worked because Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were so dynamic. Against Scotland it looked stodgy. But Southgate denied it was a mistake not to send on an extra attacker, rather than going like for like.
"I would say we had a fourth attacking player in [Mason] Mount,” Southgate said. "We’ve got to make sure we manage the tournament as well as the game. It’s easy to gamble in the last few minutes and lose shape but then you’re not managing the tournament.”
Jack Grealish in action for England
Image credit: Getty Images
Home advantage and echoes of Euro 96 were always likely to boomerang on England if results took a dip.
"This was always something I knew we were going to have to deal with - with quite an inexperienced national team,” Southgate said.
This is where he should reap the benefit of all that work on culture, on facing up to error, not shrinking from public pressure and responding to poor performances with better ones. But it turns complicated now for England’s manager.
His best starting XI remains debatable. Maguire’s match fitness isn’t guaranteed. Jadon Sancho hasn’t played a minute. Kane can’t afford a third consecutive listless display. Southgate is adamant he’s managing the tournament but his best team is no clearer with the Czech Republic game approaching.
Booed for taking the knee, then booed for drawing with Scotland, Southgate’s legion of young stars have all seen now the real pressures of tournament football. It’s in their gift to respond by making this underwhelming performance a one-off.
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