It’s early and I’m angry. I have better things to do – better things to save my precious energy up for and yet…
England. Football. Let’s start with the gaffer.
Southgate has grown into a superlative manager of the political, social and philosophical around England Football. As somebody said quite recently – in relation to his Dear England missive – ‘we don’t deserve him’. (Certainly those donkeys who boo the knee don’t).
But then there’s the *actual football*.
Here, Gareth is floundering as badly, pretty much, as all those before him. Specifically and particularly in that sense of failing utterly to relieve the players of that ‘burden of wearing the shirt’ thing. (I note to the universe that this is in fact the first and primary duty of the coach – to get his or her players comfortable and confident, individually and as a group, with the task in hand; namely to play well and, ideally, win football matches). Southgate continues the long line of coaches who have singularly failed to get England to offer good-quality, competitive football, in tournaments. (And if you’re raising your eyebrows at this because you think England were great at the last World Cup, then maybe, oh donkacious one, you best leave me here).
I get that it seems absurd that I am going to be suggesting, here I know better than The England Manager… but the fact is I – or we, we being plenty of you and certainly the four lads in my most exclusively sport-tastic whatsapp group – do. Because we can see from our blissful, comparatively innocent distance, that England remain over-coached, under-inspired, unable to surge and express. We can see them obeying the dumb mantras towards ‘staying patient’ and ‘drawing them out’. We know that this is such an obviously one-dimensional universe – that of the Whiteboard Coach – where the belief in a supra-personality (the Team Pattern) squishes the life out of the buccaneering individual.
Southgate is not alone in believing that his process will pay off, if his players continue to believe. Guardiola is similar in that his doctrinal faith in his own carousel of wonder and movement and calculation (actually) is beyond contradiction – is theoretical flawless. The difference is that England’s dancing is Dad Dancing, in comparison to City’s. In other words, it’s so clunkified and slow and predictably, lifelessly un-free, that even crap teams like Scotland can resist its pedestrian charms.
Let’s stay with this arguably unhelpful City analogy for a moment. Firstly in order to note that even the God Of All These Ambitions, Guardiola, keeps tripping himself up by over-thinking – typically, in Champions League mega-matches. Secondly, to underline this idea that City generally twinkle wonderfully because somehow their manager has freed them to do it. Now of course the burden of wearing the national jersey – any national jersey – is significantly more massive than that of a club, but (again) the primary job of the coach is to select the right blend of humans and broad or specific strategies to facilitate effective, fluent expression of talents available. Has Southgate managed that? Does that sound like a description of England?
Against Scotland – who competed in exactly the way that we all knew they would – England lacked verve, personality, guts, fire, pace, imagination. Why? Because of a certain level of feebleness, as individuals, and an obvious, embarrassing, un-generous, spirit-crushing over-reliance on thin beliefs around patience, pattern, ‘inevitability’. Sterling and Kane jogged listlessly around thinking ‘it would happen eventually’. Rice and Phillips played out the same, unthreatening pass-routine believing that in time ‘space would open up’. Mount looked for the ‘points of weakness’ they’d no doubt spoken about all week – those and very little else… because beyond the brief. England, despite having fine players on the park, looked like a bunch of drugged automatons again.
They all take the rap. Southgate for over-seeing another capitulation to fear and un-ambition, the players for lacking the spunk and the natural urgency that you would hope would naturally course through them, in a derby and a tournament. Pretty pitiful failures, both. Predictable failures, both.
Southgate’s selection was interesting – revealing, inevitably. Drop Walker, after his twenty-minute ‘mare the other night and drop Trippier for failing to influence. Keep the Faith with the rest. Stick with a back four and two anchor-midfielders: so six defensive players, effectively. Against Scotland.
Did he contemplate going three central defenders with two genuinely flying wing-backs? You should bloody-well hope so. But did he press that P for positivity button? No. No Chilwell and Reece-James to set a-racing, to lift the crowd and light up our evening, against opposition who have McTominay at centre-back, by the way. (Him who, yaknow, never plays there). For an England team that has arguably been characterised by spinelessness, in tournaments, for decades, this was another willowy, thinly-conservative selection.
So I’m fascinated in what Gareth actually believes in. Not that I doubt his sincerity – not one bit. I just don’t get what it is that he’s seeing, from his players and from the performance of his strategies. Any clown can see that Sterling has often, despite being brilliant, been somewhere between ineffective and woeful, for England, in tournaments. He was again last night.
Any clown can see that the central issue is lack of pace and confidence – of spark. And yet two relatively one-paced holding players. Any clown can see that that whole thing of strikers pootling aimlessly about, ‘saving their energy for the red zone’, is cobblers: because that breeds predictability, lack of touch and options and zero excitement – zero surge. And yet, in their arrogance, coaching staff and players play out that dumb charade of efficiency and effect… to no effect. England become laughably easy to play against.
Because life is complex, it may yet be that England fluke their way through and then accidentally find some form. They may even win the fucking tournament. They do have players. But they were again a deeply dispiriting watch, last night.
Party of my anger about all this is because the friends I am staying with – in Bristol, for the cricket – who are rather wonderful people but not huge football fans, sat through that garbage and could barely believe their own boredom. They were actually shocked by how dull England were. Against Scotland. In a major tournament. Why didn’t Kane seem interested? Why did Rice (and all the defenders, actually) do everything so slowly? WHERE WAS THE URGENCY? Any clown could see there was none. Just a kind of un-belief in something that plainly wasn’t happening.
Southgate is a wonderful man and a top, top manager. But probably a mediocre coach. Fine to aspire towards a kind of Group Accountability and a Faith In The Process – these are fabulous, intoxicating, legitimate theories. But you have to select the personnel and bundle, bawl or hug them into something which works. Absolutely respect Sir Gareth: but the bloke is too uninspiring, too conservative, too timid a coach, to set Rashford, Grealish, Chilwell, Trippier or whoever racing. Thus the holy grail of developmental process is ultimately hollow: once more.
Southgate may well personally deserve more and better but whilst he withdraws Foden – the nearest England had to a bright spark – to stick Grealish on (belatedly and wide left), and whilst he replaces Kane with Rashford, like-for-like, instead of withdrawing the ineffectual Sterling, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he’s just another sophisticate, fiddling unconvincingly?
England played Scotland and Scotland probably deserved to win. If you were to do that marks-out-of-ten thing the Three Lions (pah!) team rating would be 3. Only Mings and possibly Foden would have scored above 5 or 6. England were lousy.