MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Efficient, said the man on the television. Efficient, said the papers. And we're in no mind to disagree. England went to Albania with two objectives — get three points; get zero injuries — and they completed both with a minimum of fuss.
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No, it wasn't particularly exciting. But then England's men's team is a qualifying machine these days, and excitement, adventure, thrills and spills… that's all inefficiency. Indeed, if you'll excuse us lurching from a mechanical metaphor to a biological one, it's clear England think of these games as a big bowl of All-Bran topped with chopped prunes. Nobody enjoys the process, but it's necessary to get things [Punchline deleted. This is a family column.]
And one can always poke around and find a few positives. Mason Mount was pretty good, hey? We were going to make a joke here about how it's okay to like Mount now that a proper coach has started picking him, but, er, it turns out that Southgate has seen that hilarious gag coming and does not like it one bit.
Sorry Gareth. At least we can all agree that Luke Shaw's glorious return to England duty went gloriously. There is probably some other version of history where Shaw's path from incredibly promising to incredibly good isn't quite so winding and injury-strewn, and where last night was his 50th cap, rather than his ninth. But at least the tenth should arrive pretty quickly.
And, of course, the main man, the captain, the deep-drifting goal machine that hadn't scored for his country for a calendar year and change, the Tottenham line-leader who will not be drawn on his future: Harry "A Booking? For That?" Kane. Nice to be reminded that he's still very, very good at the goal-poaching business, even with all this other stuff going on.
Thanks to the pandemic, this particular qualification campaign has a whole international tournament stuck in the middle of it, and so it's only reasonable to wonder if we've seen any of Southgate's plans for Euro 2020-but-really-21. Two holding midfielders as strong favourites might set alarm bells ringing, though the fact that England shifted formation halfway through the first half and looked much better for it might quieten them again.
Ultimately, this efficient display of efficiency amounted to one big, pleasant problem for Gareth Southgate. He can't take every versatile attacking midfielder that's good enough for a spot; he can't take every single left-back. Right now this England team looks like a Harry up top, a Harry at the back, and a ferocious argument for almost every other position. Which isn't necessarily a bad place to be, three months out from a tournament. But it's probably quite a stressful one.
Job Very Much Not Done
It's a tricky job, being coach of an U21 side. Results are important but they're not the whole story: what matters is that future internationals are given a good grounding in the principles and patterns of international football, such that when they graduate to the full team they do so with a minimum of fuss. It's the performances, not the scorelines.
So, for example, England losing the first two games of the U21 Euros isn't necessarily a disaster. However, Aidy Boothroyd's Young Lions have lost and been complete rubbish, and that's the worst of all possible worlds. Two games down and precisely zero shots on target from open play. Nobody's learning anything good from that.
For some time now, the U21 side have looked much less than the sum of their parts, and last night they weren't just beaten by Portugal, but outthought and outclassed. It's never a good sign when players in decent touch for their clubs turn up and look witless in white, and though Boothroyd later claimed that England were "only favourites in the English press", it was hard not to wonder at this other Emile Smith Rowe, this strange Tom Davies.
Two defeats from two means England now need snookers to get out of the group: a win over Croatia and a favour from Portugal against Switzerland. That may not be enough to earn Boothroyd a new contract, given the general state of things. But he'll always be the England manager that kept their job after drawing with Andorra, and that's a quirk of history we may never see again.
Here's another fun thing about VAR. It doesn't just interfere with games it oversees: it's started mucking around with those it doesn't, too. Nowhere is free from its eternal presence. Portugal had a last minute possible-equaliser not given against Serbia, and without goalline technology, we'll never know.
Did look a lot like a goal, though. Pretty goal-adjacent. Very, very goalish.
Obviously you'd need a heart of stone not to find Cristiano Ronaldo throwing his captain's armband away, then claiming that the entire nation of Portugal has been damaged by this great wrong, just a little bit funny. But the fact that VAR is imperfectly distributed, here but not there, means that all non-VAR controversies become VAR controversies as well. We thought we were getting a week off!
Football stands at a crossroads. Either it works hard to ensure that VAR is present in every game that Cristiano Ronaldo has even a passing interest in, pandemic be damned, or we end up with a situation like this. Wrath, injustice, and nobody talking about the fact that Portugal somehow let a two goal lead slip.
IN OTHER NEWS
This is a lovely goal, as pure a hit as Niall McGinn could have dreamed of from an angle that can only be described as Van Basten-esque. And yet, the very best thing about it is the advertising behind the goal. It seems the hoardings were so excited they tried to shout, "LIQUID FOOTBALL" and "HOLY MOLY" at the same time, and got all confused. Bless.
IN THE CHANNELS
Here come Wales, really raising the bar for 100 cap celebrations. No golden plaque here. Instead, Chris Gunter receives an oil painting of himself, courtesy of back-up goalkeeper and all-round renaissance man Owain Fôn Williams. When the time comes, if the FA don't get Nick Pope to knock up a quick symphony for Harry Kane, we'll know they don't really care.
England are playing Poland in a couple of days, and if you place your ear to the ground, you'll hear the distant rumble of "1973", "Wembley", "draw", "Jan Tomaszewski", and "clown" approaching. Over at the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson gets in ahead of the game with a spot of gentle myth busting.
The draw meant England failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since they had first entered in 1950. It was a night of such trauma that it gave birth to the enduring myth that Poland were England’s bogey team, even though England haven’t lost any of the 15 subsequent meetings. But ask those who witnessed it what happened and you will hear radically different accounts.
A rest day for most of the world, but Africa Cup of Nations qualifying rolls on, and Fuenlabrada take on Real Mallorca in La Liga 2.
We're off to work on our oil painting tribute to Ben Snowball, who will be here with your Warm-Up tomorrow.
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