Pre- game, what were your expectations? Did you do that thing where you know enough to know that (this) England squad is three goals better than (this) Ukrainian squad but still feared another tense one? Of course you did. And of course you didn’t – because England are at the centre of the world’s wildness. There is nothing and everything exceptional about them – about us. We love dogs and still hate the Germans. It’s wild.
England are the best-led/worst-fed/punchiest/most feeble. Their fans are the best/most decent/most racist. Southgate is god/is good/is god-awful. These are the Truths we throw in the mixer. We go to tournaments and don’t play any football. We get handy draws. We don’t deserve Bobby Robson, or Bryan Robson or Gareth Southgate – but we do deserve Gazza: we ARE Gazza. We are onion bags.
For a minute there, I lost myself. Call it euphoria; call it National Delusion. Call it an absolute thumping!
In Rome, England wallop Ukraine, 4-0. Wow. Sterling beats a cluster of theoretically Sterling-assigned defenders and flips a cute pass: Kane toe-pokes home. Anvil-head stuffs one across the keeper: dooff! Luke Shaw gets yet more crossing-practice in and ‘Arry nods another. Ridiculously, The Bloke Who Cannot Score flashes in, from a corner. Four flippin’ nil! Meaning Dreamland.
Do we need any (or is there any space for any) un-belief? Criticism? Reflection? There’s probably no room but let’s do some, anyway:
Wonderful, energising win. Joyful.
Poor opposition – but we knew that – that’s why we said England are three goals better to everyone within earshot, for the last three days.
Smart tactics, if we assume a 4-0 means things went overwhelmingly right? (We don’t assume it; we look at it, meaning…
The ability to switch formations is a significant indicator of certain strengths. Understanding; nous; confidence, maybe. Flexibility that might be useful, over a tournament. Belief in The Process).
Southgate is arguably world-leadingly good at setting out and following his process. He is generous and idealistic enough to let the trust flow. And yet this radical, contemporary, open philosophy is underpinned by – or maybe dogged by – a less appealing pragmatism. He may be both faultless philosopher and (when it comes to the *actual footie*) a relative cynic.
Sterling may be the most obvious example of a brilliant player who has benefitted – or is, now, some might say finally – from his gaffer’s trust. The City star has been one of the finest players in the Premier League for years, but has a) been off, for months and b) (some might say) has under-performed, for England – like so many others, over the decades. That weight-of-the-shirt thing, preposterously, given England’s non-centrality to the *actual drama*, has been a genuine presence.
With regards to tournaments, this accusation upon Sterling – driven, I accept, by racism in some quarters – may have some merit. Raheem – now an impressively mature man and something of a touchstone for progress on many fronts – has played to about 60% of his capacity, in Euros and World Cups. Like England, you might say. He’s gone there with expectation around him but been unable to do the football bit. Like England. If last night’s demolition of Ukraine signalled anything, let’s hope it marked another casting off point, for the lad from Wembley.
But amidst all the justified euphoria, where are England, really? A step closer, of course.
Southgate’s extraordinary mixture of dignity, cutting-edge understanding and (for me, rather dispiriting) conservatism has gotten Ingerland home – possibly twice – for the Business End.
I might still argue that England have played relatively little compelling football and that good teams might yet unpick their defence. (The stats and the tables might guffaw in the face of this view and I understand that Southgate’s Enlightenment is predicated on his knowledge that a) you don’t have to play football to win tournaments and b) what really counts is managing games. However, my strong preference – given we have Foden, given we have Grealish, as well as Sterling, Kane, Mount – would be to look to dominate, pressurise, flow, rather than manage).
The Germany game, despite being a key win, was instructive on many levels. Once we’d got past the booing of the opposition’s national anthem by thousands of morons, a decidedly low-grade German side, featuring a Muller now fully three years beyond his sell-by-date and Gnabry(!) as first impact sub, quietly bossed the first half. Both Muller and Werner should have scored in the game and had Garetzka, when lumbering clear, had either the will to strike – rather than draw a pen – or the pace to free himself, the result might have been very different. Accept it wasn’t but also re-state my central argument that the Southgate Disposition, for genuinely competitive games – to see out periods and nick goals – is, despite being a heavily considered and no doubt stat-based one, also vulnerable.
England will almost certainly look to drop back into an effective 5-3-2 against Denmark and play with caution but purpose. Understand that but don’t like it much. Would prefer if they did what Italy did to Belgium. Engage with energy and pace. Not recklessly; not without responsibilities fully factored-in; but with a view to dominate and the potential to emphatically out-score your opponent. (I will add that I wouldn’t want England to plainly invent contact and injury in the way several of the Italians did, so disgracefully, the other night, as they cynically sought to see out the final period: this was Old Italy and it traduced the brilliance of their earlier contribution).
It was thrilling to see the Azurri go so expansive, urgent and un-Italian: would both enjoy seeing England do that against Denmark and actually believe it suits the personnel Southgate has available. Plus England are home. Plus – and I know this is laughably naïve – enter-bloody-tainment.
Could be that I am again an outlier in seeing plenty holes in the English Dreaming. Repeat that this is more about optimism – the faith in skill, energy, talent – than miserablism. England went from managing the tournament to potentially storming it, last night. Now, onwards. I hope they keep – or maybe invent? – some irresistible faith.