All Our Fuss.

An addition: after the event. In the light of the despicable racist abuse of the players involved, a sentence about England and its gammons. If any clown thinks my view of events (below) is in any sense a criticism of any of the players who stepped up to take penalties, then they are stupid as they are prejudiced. Similarly, those who created mayhem and violence of any sort, or posted or in any sense sympathised with the bigoted filth that arose, predictably, online do not speak for me. In fact they make it almost impossible – for me any many others – to identify as an English-born football fan.

This post contains *opinions* – chiefly criticisms of Gareth Southgate – but it is as anti-racist as he is.

Here’s what he should have done – he being Southgate.

In the short term, he should have quietly but firmly told Saka and Sancho they weren’t taking pens. And somebody on the staff should have told Rashford that long and winding run-up was too daft, too convoluted and too involved to be the preamble to generational glory. Those three game lads will carry the guilt but it was an obvious series of howlers, from the gaffer.

Anybody who knows football knows you need a few touches to warm up the senses – perhaps particularly if you then face the cold reality of a dead ball to strike, early-doors. Howler, then, that in his conservatism and unwillingness to act, Southgate fails to give Rashford and Sancho meaningful time on the pitch. Howler – no matter how much the players themselves may have clamoured for the moment – that Southgate misreads the magnitude of all this, and allows Sancho and Saka to step up. More senior, more solid players should have been tapped-up weeks ago.

During the prelude to penalties, there had been a sense of scramble – perhaps there always is? But it looked like the order was still being thrown down, by the England Manager and his chief aide Steve Holland, right at the last. Could be they were deciding on penalty takers 8, 9 and 10 but wasn’t a good look. And despite Mancini making a gaffe of his own – by allowing the wretched Belotti, who has been woeful on each of his appearances – to fluff, entirely predictably, his effort, the maths worked for the Azzurri. England got beat on pens again.

Perverse to blame Sir Gareth? I think not. Or at least I am prepared to continue the no-doubt unpopular and admittedly rather severe arguments I’ve been making for weeks/months/years. Southgate is a great manager but dispiritingly pragmatic coach; a man whom we are right to love and cherish for his worldliness and contemporary suss… but still, despite that theoretical generosity, a relentlessly one-dimensional football man. England hid away their talents, once more.

The best team won, on the night – even after an electrifying start for the home team. Italy slaughtered England for much of the second half, either side of a deserved equaliser. If Chiesa had not been sadly withdrawn due to injury, you feel he personally would have extinguished the Three Lions, in Ordinary Time. (3-1, I’m guessing). As it was, England dragged it out, before showing a little spirit as the thing ebbed towards that sapping denouement.

But Southgate had again been frozen into inactivity, compared to his opposite number. There were no England subs when the universe cried out for them. (Southgate barely does subs: subs imply proactive thinking). Mancini, meanwhile, swapped everybody, as his players strode forward. England belatedly brought on Sancho but even that felt like a sop: something you can do ‘safely’ because he’s out there, on the fringes. Then came Henderson, for a tiring Rice. Grealish, as always, appeared to ‘make a rescue’; when it felt like the game had gone. Feeble stuff, from those allegedly directing the England camp.

England played well in the first half. There was some energy, some purpose, even if there was comparatively little in the way of joined-up play. Again this reflects the manager’s penchant for the seeing-out of games as opposed to fluent football. Whilst I have to respect that this pragmatism evidently got his side to the final – and the semi, at the World Cup – I absolutely reject this as a life-choice. Playing Not Much Football is life-crushingly dull. It may even, despite appearances, be dumb: we will never know what a team coloured by Grealish and a free, flicking, flashing Foden might have achieved. Maybe it might have both entertained us and won the bloody tournament.

Gareth chose not. He opted for the safety of six or seven defensively-minded players and a system that spoke to the gods of Care and Management. Yes, there were times when his players flew a little: Sterling, though pale last night, looked a worldie for much of the tournament. Kane looked a player again, for the first 45. Elsewhere, how did the creative players fare? (Who were the creative players, actually?) England’s culture was again so steeped in What If They Do This To Us(?) that we saw very little of Mount/the wingers/any truly sustained attacking play.

The best team won. They won, ultimately, in a shootout that was manifestly mishandled by England but Italy should have won earlier. It was a stunning and deserved triumph for Mancini, who has not only made the Azzurri almost unbeatable again but has made them more watchable than at any time since… I dunno… 1966?

England’s tournament was arguably another stepping-stone: but perhaps only towards that rather miserly acceptance that games of football are there to be managed, not enjoyed. There will be claims of heroism and spirit: these are exaggerations. A goodish team has done well – without looking stylish or fluent. Neutrals will still be wondering what all our fuss is about.

Player/Manager ratings: out of 10.

Southgate – as Manager, 12. As Coach, 6.

Pickford – 6.5. Spent the night bawling, as always and lashing the ball 60 yards up the park. Clearly under instruction, but he ensured England lost possession within 25 seconds of gaining it. Ridiculous.

Trippier 6. Had his vengeful head on. Odd. Only occasionally involved.

Walker 8. Solid, athletic, calm.

Maguire 6.5. Weirdly changeable again. Some woeful, nervy touches and some of that upright elegance.

Stones 6.5. Ver-ry quiet. Not sure if that was good.

Shaw 7.5. First-half great, later barely contributing, going forward.

Phillips 7. As always, got better – or worthier? – as things progressed. Ran forever but few memorable passes.

Rice 8. England’s best player for an hour. Actually ran past people but – as expected – lacked that killer incision.

Sterling 5.5. A significant disappointment. Look what Chiesa – his oppo’, arguably, in the Player of the Tournament stakes – did.

Kane 7. Excellent for some of the first half; then too quiet.

Mount 6. Ran but made few contributions with the ball.

A Sacrilege.

I’m up for maybe fifty percent of the Southgate love-in. No, seventy percent.

The bit that says he’s an outstanding manager – but maybe, possibly not coach.

The bit that’s utterly, utterly behind his messaging about race, diversity, honouring the Black Lives Matter campaign.

The stuff that without being overtly political, is pissing all over the gammons and the government.

I’m also absolutely behind the idea that you need to judge the character and the nature of players, and build with them. In some cases this might mean trusting them to come good – gambling that their faith in you and your culture will produce. In other cases, folks get passed over or dropped… because this is professional football.

Southgate is something of an exemplar, on these terms; he gets Bigger Pictures – well, some of them – and he is generous enough to insist they – or some of them – count.

But life is complicated. It’s ridiculous, surely, to look at England FC and see the whole as a simple, shining light? Even if all the players were/are completely united behind Sir Gareth’s entirely compelling aspirations towards equality and respect. Even if it’s right to be righteous in the face of stinking privilege and prejudice (at government level and in the general population), it doesn’t make sense that – as some of the more delusional columns are suggesting – Southgate is leading us towards a brighter, fairer dawn. He isn’t – he can’t.

The England Manager is doing a wonderful job of many things but – to take one example – he cannot divert or control or persuade away the likely jeering and booing of the Italian national anthem tonight. In short, his dignity and grace, inspiring though it is, cannot undo the wider malaise.

Out with it. We have the most amoral PM imaginable, leading a shamelessly corrupt government streaked with racism and bile. The country – England – is more loaded up with contempt for The Other than at any period in a lifetime. The best Gareth can do is make a wee dent, show a better face to the watching world. The campaigners within his group will likewise do their skilful, progressive bit but as so often, only the converted may be listening. Southgate/Rashford/Sterling/the Universe deserve better.

Life is complicated and we wish it could be more just. Southgate’s philosophical stuff is wonderful but only The Mood will change – and probably only then if England win.

Let’s talk footie, then, briefly. I have consistently argued that Southgate’s conservatism – I know, ironic, but that’s what it is – around managing games out rather than playing great, attacking football disappoints me. His ‘pragmatism’ re Rice and Phillips. His ‘ruthlessness’ re Grealish. I hear (how could I not?) the argument that Winning (or in tournament football) Winning Through Is What It’s All About; but for me, nah.

The undeniable fact that Ingerland have gotten through to the final does not mean fitful and relatively negative displays in the early rounds, or seven defensively-minded players against an ordinary German side or no Grealish and minimal Foden was unarguably right – either ‘ethically’ or in football terms. Nor does it mean that selection or even strategy was right, over all. It just means that it worked over these few tournament games and they got through. (Unpopular note: England again had an almost suspiciously easy draw).

Who’s to say what a genuinely ambitious side, with James and Chilwell as genuine flyers and Foden and Grealish as genuine players, might have done?

No matter how good Shaw or Rice, or Phillips might have been, there was another way. Fascinatingly, we might see it as a more generous, more holistically enriching way… but this would set it entirely at odds to the Gareth Project: would make it a sacrilege. It may be outright dangerous to suggest that Southgate Himself has been a tad disingenuous in describing the squad’s alleged commitment to entertainment and excitement. Sure, the excitement has happened but more, in my view, via the winning than the doing.

(*Notes*: Italy have come through playing the most positive football we’ve seen from the Azzurri for decades. Which may mean nothing).

Southgate is a thoroughly good man – too good for most of us. I would love him more completely if his approach to the football had been as generous as his approach to his Public Duties.

Denmark.

It’s surely more difficult for us than the players. They sleep, eat, ‘rest up’ then play. We, meanwhile are scurrying from bank (to sort post-separation dollars stuff), to garden (token hedge-trim), to the kitchen (to sort something crappy but Do-able Before The Game). It’s hell, right? Whilst Luke Shaw’s been absent-mindedly picking his nose and wiggling his toes in them dodgy red slippers, we’ve been ratcheting-up the wiredness factor. We’re exhausted from running down the clock… which hasn’t *actually* started.

Six-thirtyish and too late for a kip. Wine o’clock, possibly.

Denmark were ver-ry good whenever-it-was and they have a Reason To Believe. Maybe two: Eriksen and that whole ‘Small Nation’ thing. Why wouldn’t they be raging, magnificently and with quiet, comradely expectation at the prospect of delivering yet another axe to the unsuspecting back? England the footie team may not be complacent but the universe around sure is. Schmeichel’s icy put-down is merely one sign that their opponents – The Visitors – are rooted and ready and implacably determined. Denmark aren’t thinking of springing a surprise. They’re looking to outplay the home side – make a statement of togetherness and defiance and power.

This is one way it could go.

Another is that the England gaffer excels himself, by throwing off the Quiet Man Cape and donning the metaphorical chainmail. He roars; he sprays; he waves his spiky-mace-effort. His players are transported, inspired. They race and carve and consume, unrelentingly. They rout. The full-backs are winged maniacs and Our ‘Arry is a savage-beaked, swooping Griffin. We see myth play out, not match. We see Sterling galloping and Maguire gallumping. It’s like some epic, nation-defining tapestry. The lad from Liverpool scores again, for chrissakes.

Pause for that drink – my first, I promise.

The first rule of Big Match Club is don’t watch hours of pre-game punditry. (I’m still on Wimbledon). You know the ex-England posse will be drifting in and out of Delusionville: urging positivity and expression and directness, with – yaknow – straight faces. ‘Just hoping the lads will play with freedom’.

(Methinks Southgate worked out some time ago – dispiritingly, as I have said before – that you don’t need to play football to win tournaments: you need to manage games. He may be right but this doesn’t stop me dreaming – to coin a phrase – that Ingerland might break ranks with that entirely rational but mildly suffocating philosophy and go wild inna free-range stylee. Surge forward and look to outscore opponents who – whilst being worthy and competent-plus – have fewer talents to call upon).

I confess to being an outlier but I really do almost dread this more than defeat. Pragmatism and patience? COME ON!! Give something sustaining and enjoyable to the tournament, England. You owe us one – or five, or six. You’re in your house. Bring it down in a hail of voices, a cacophony of irresistible energy. Holding and waiting and ‘seeing out’ is such an under-achievement. 7.33.

Not sure about Wrighty’s glasses.

England have gone 4-2-3-1, with Saka back to have a gambol. Might have preferred 5-3-2 with genuinely flying wing-backs but Saka and Sterling might, of course surge into those spaces. Would love to see the latter stay involved and deliver a masterclass. Denmark are expected to be 3-4-3 but imagine wide players will swiftly drop in to make that a defensive 5. Am really looking forward to seeing if they can play nerveless, expansive (or at least controlled) football. Hunch is that we might see England play a lot of that slowly-slowly stuff that feels like a kind of capitulation. Hope I’m wrong.

7.53. Just get past the anthems then it’s sound up, yes?

Are people seriously booing the Danish anthem? What the f*ck are we, exactly?

Matterface. A concern?

Pleased Mount’s in there. He likes to run straight. Waiting on a killer one-two involving the wee man, or a threaded ball that breaks the line. Wonderful to see so much of that from both Spain and Italy last night – pinged, ‘vertical’ passes.

First rash one of the night; “We can beat the Danes, there’s no doubt about that.” Dixon. England racing in to press, early doors. Dead right, in this cauldron. But whilst England are bursting, Denmark execute a few slick passes – importantly, you feel. Great ball in, from Kane almost puts Sterling in on goal. High tempo, from England, encouragingly.

Walker uses his body well: then, with Stones and Maguire utterly absent, shepherds the ball back to safety. (Worrying moment, in fact: Walker’s pace and strength may have just saved his colleagues’ blushes). Mount is running but should do better when entering the box, on the right. Over-runs but draws the corner. Poor delivery from the Chelsea man – doesn’t beat the first man.

Sterling is skipping inside and should blast: scuffs it – decent chance. Twelve minutes and England dominant. Significantly, it’s bright, it’s energetic. Shaw looking confident and looking to pick passes. But then two errors and two half-chances… and the concern that despite conceding nothing, England do offer chances. Crowd sounds great; proverbial extra man for England – particularly if they keep the revs high. Sixteen minutes. Nil-nil.

Sterling is fouled – pushed, in the back – but falls down like something out of Punch & Judy. ‘Draws the foul’, according to the commentator. One or two England errors in central midfield, deepish, or deeper still. Slight concern? Twenty-two minutes. We have a breather.

For the first time, Denmark enjoy a little ease, in possession. They straighten, visibly. Saka maybe needs a kick.

A further half-chance for the visitors. As Germany did, they are asking questions. Game has evened up. Saka makes a nuisance of himself and gets a foul – without shaking off that sense that he’s not yet in the game – or on his. Dolberg shamelessly overacts after a minor cuff to the face. Mount was a tad clumsy but it was hardly an assault. Embarrassing – but rife, yes? Denmark appear to be dragging the England back four central, presumably to expose wide areas as a result?

Half an hour and *that foul* proves costly. Could be Pickford doesn’t cover himself in glory but a beautifully whipped side-foot strike from Damsgaard finds the net -stunningly – from best part of thirty yards. Fabulous hit but a) it was a decent distance out and b) it did not find the top corner. So arguable whether the England keeper has got that right. But to reiterate, lovely connection – and not completely out of the blue.

There is danger here, because the game is already quite open; or more particularly, the England defence (again despite that miserly record) looks porous – disparate, even. More goals, either on the break or via phases of play, feel possible. The threat is all from Denmark, suddenly.

Oof. Sharp move gets Sterling free but Schmeichel saves. A minute later and Kane finds an angle and Saka is racing and cutting back. Yet again it’s Sterling who can finish. (In truth he doesn’t need to: Kjaer, the retreating defender can only help it in). 1-1, against the very recent run of play, but England will take that. They needed it. Quality not as good as last night but excitement right up there. Crowd re-find their voice.

Kane dropping deep to get hold of the ball. Have no issue with that. Fine passer and happy to see him in the game. As we get to half time it’s been full-blooded, racy and even. 1-1 it is – and that’s a fair reflection. Mute button.

Looking at highlights, Sterling smashing straight into Schmeichel’s mid-riff was a real miss, but no argument with the general notion that Denmark have been at least as dangerous as the home side. Those pre-tournament concerns about the durability of England’s defence are *in play* here, to the extent that it feels likely that Denmark will score again. Is it fair to suggest that whoever wins this will start the final as underdogs? Less true it that team is England (because of the venue) but this is a notch down from Italy-Spain.

We’re back. Pickford – who has generally thwacked rather mindlessly long – thwacks mindlessly long: twenty five yards ahead of the England attack. Poor. Is he having one of those days? Lots of extravagant bawling going on. Meanwhile Maguire is booked for raising an arm into the headed challenge. Very questionable call. Time stands still for the bonce protocols. Lots of space in the midfield. Dolberg benefits but Pickford saves, with a strong wrist. But offside, in any case.

Denmark on top. The England keeper does one of those (ver ver contemporary) ridicu-punches, when he might surely have caught the cross. Doesn’t help to settle the nerves. England respond with a tremendous Maguire header, which Schmeichel does outstandingly well to push clear. Little sign of control, from the Rice and Phillips axis, or threat from the wide players: are England going to need to notch from a set-play, here? Denmark remain the more likely.

From nowhere, Sterling and Shaw do the old overlap routine: we know it’s coming but you try stopping it. Denmark couldn’t but the cross squirts to safety: the corner comes to nothing. Not his fault, especially but Saka has been a relative passenger: Mount, Rice and Phillips have exercised minimal real influence.

An hour in: the crowd try to ‘do their bit’. Partly because they can feel England need them. Interestingly, the Danes make three subs – a bold commitment. And now Southgate is looking to Grealish. A lame cross from Saka may signal his withdrawal… and it does. (Could- and might – write a three zillion word thesis on Grealish(e)s in English Football. But that’s for later. He’s on, to a huge roar, and probably playing wide left again).

Twenty minutes remain. Denmark marginally ahead on points but we’re into a scrappy spell – so often the case after multiple substitutions. Grealish draws a foul and a yellow. Moment of controversy as Kane falls in theatrical style. If he hadn’t, he might have been awarded the pen. Rather poor game now. Barely any spells of possession. Seventy-six minutes. Spot-kicks likely?

Maguire almost puts Grealish in and Christensen stretches so-o far he has to be withdrawn, soon after. Phillips drives but always wide. Mount is lucky to draw a foul: referee’s been mixed. Shaw overhits the free-kick and the crowd quietens – because this is messy, now. That bloke from the Villa can’t chest down – his second poor touch – but I’m feeling for him, somewhat (and guessing I’m not alone). On belatedly and therefore opportunities squeezed: not ideal.

Eighty-five mins and Denmark settling. They at least are effecting some sequences of passing. Some. They’ve made five (5) subs to England’s one. May be a masterstroke from Southgate or may be a further sign of his essential conservatism. The crowd are baying, with some disappointment, now. Six minutes of extra time.

Some excitement as Sterling gets wide but Phillips blazes over. Can see the tension in the faces in the crowd. Kane lies down again on contact. Shameless but the foul is given – out wide. Maguire rises but an easy gather for Schmeichel. Extra time proper upcoming, with neither side showing much quality and only occasional flickers of urgency. Anybody could win this but neutrals will be thinking both Spain and Italy were waay better. (I’m thinking that). England – theoretically the stronger side – have failed almost completely to impose themselves.

Finally, Foden. Grealish slightly into panto mode to draw a further foul. Meh. Kane fashions a half-chance but Schmeichel palms clear… but at least England are threatening. Rice and Mount withdrawn for Foden and Henderson. Some passes, for England. Shaw is back in the game. Corner.

Feels, for the first time for maybe an hour, that a goal may be coming for England. Maguire nods and then Sterling has a yard but drives high. Just the sense that Grealish may be starting to strut. Denmark seem content to soak it up: feels risky.

Sterling races with just one thing in his mind. He gets it. Pen. First thought – he dived – or at the very least he was plainly seeking it. (Get that this is different but not a fan of falling on contact. Again I may be an outlier but when players seek above all to wait for any touch and fall, my heart sinks). This will be both ecstasy and tragedy of sorts… Kane fluffs it, as if to make it even more painful for the Danes, but scores with the rebound. Awful way to win this. Half-time.

Wrighty covers up the deception. Neville may be right in saying England deserve the goal – they probably do – but the manner of it was deeply unsatisfactory for some of us. Sterling has been arguably England’s best player – without being consistently good – but he may have sparked a major philosophical discussion. Meanwhile the crowd sing “It’s coming home”.

Grealish is withdrawn. If that’s a defensive move, it’s dreadful, in my view. It may be an injury. Denmark have lost a little of their sparkle. Matterface patronises them, appallingly. Kane falls out wide and is ‘astonished’ he neither got the foul nor the throw.

England ‘seeing it out’. Brathwaite shoots but Pickford can push past. Corner. Foden might release Kane but Schmeichel reads it. The Danes press. Another corner: five minutes remaining. Blissful phases and luxurious into-the-corners, for Henderson, Foden, Sterling. OH-LAYS. Sterling is greedy when a pass might just end this.

And then it’s over. Joy for a home crowd.

As a fan and an England fan I have mixed feelings. Sterling did what most players are doing. He surged with just that one thing on his mind. Not to smash the ball home but to feel the faintest touch… and go down. Neutrals will condemn him: I will merely say that it’s an unfortunate way to win. My headlines will not be ‘glory, glory’, they will be ‘England win it; they were mixed’. They found a way but again the opposition, for much of the game – despite being away and despite being theoretically outgunned, in terms of personnel – were entirely competitive. Congratulations – genuinely – to Denmark.

So Southgate has indeed got his crew to the final. And in there they may even explode into glorious animation. He will know, though that Italy have quality, and that his policy of offering the opposition a good share of possession will face a sterner test yet. Denmark, for the most part, looked as good as England. Italy, should England sit, may look better.

Minor post-script – for better, for worse. That pen. Sterling is entitled to go searching for a penalty, I get that: it’s not against the rules, as such. But I personally think that aspiration sucks, compared to the historic instinct to simply smash the ball into the top corner. Understand not everyone agrees.

The matter becomes then whether it was actually a foul – and yet somehow the judgement of the officials becomes (arguably) doubly important. A) Because they are charged with judging correctly under the laws and b) because there now may be weightier, more abstract considerations creeping in, which may include that which is within or without of the spirit of the game. (Aaaargh, I know!) We may even be confronting what is right or wrong: at best there is unavoidable baggage. (In saying this, again I get that the referee is only really judging on the actuality or otherwise of the foul. But there may be cheating here – or at best cynicism – and these are *factors*).

For me it was blindingly obvious that Sterling was only ever interested in a penalty – which may be irrelevant – and I think there was no foul committed. So no penalty on either the ‘moral’ or corporeal level. We, as punters or refs, must then consider whether to give a foul against Sterling, for invention/deception and/or maybe even whether we book him… or just have a word.

Beyond the event, I have long been an advocate of penalising players who bring the game into disrepute by diving or attempting to deceive the officials. My panel of ex-players (or similar) would be looking closely at this and either having their own words, publicly, to express their dissatisfaction, or applying a sanction.

Sterling, whom I accept has often been the victim of prejudice or misjudgement, is unfortunately at the centre again, but he’s put himself there. Some pundits may be saying what he did was clever. I think it was shit – and yes, anti-football. The Whole of Ingerland may be celebrating, but the way of it has made it the thinnest of wins.

Ukraine.

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.

And yet I moan.

Previously, on bowlingatvincent.com

I got shredded for using the language of a fan and saying stuff like Scotland are crap. (When actually of course this is offensive to some).

Folks mistook me for a) an out-and-out England supporter and b) someone who has that English Exceptionalist arrogance going on, when I spend a good deal of my waking hours cringing with embarrassment at the state of our (English) delusions. This Three Lions squad has players… but how good is it, really? *Scrunched-up face and/or WTF face emoji*.

Also, I eviscerated Southgate for his essential conservatism but then agreed that ‘we probably don’t deserve him’, in the sense that his brilliance around culture, social awareness, responsibility, visibility and message – and maybe even coaching theory(?) – is so laudable and obvious that it feels like maybe the universe should somehow reward the fella. And yet I moan.

England beat Germany. I get that many will like the sound of that: I do a little, myself. 2 – 0. And it is commonly believed that there is a pathway to Bigger Things, opening up. This may be true. Let me throw some ideas at this; at the notions around that prospect and this win.

Here’s a quote from the man himself, after the game:

“We talked about bringing enjoyment to the nation and afternoon’s like that are what it’s all about. The players were absolutely immense right through the team… It was a tremendous performance”.

I think this is both understandable, given the euphoria but also genuinely weird. And plainly delusional.

Just how much did Southgate’s team speak to you, sagacious reader, of ‘bringing enjoyment?’ Arguably 7 (seven) defensively-minded players. No Foden or Grealish or Mount – all of whom bring a surely richer, higher, pacier, edgier edge-of-the-seat factor than some of those who actually got picked. The whole utterly designed for a kind of ‘patient’ pragmatism – for which read ‘nicking a goal and holding out’. Like the away side. At Wembley. Against a genuinely (genuinely) average German team.

So. Enjoyment? And immensity? Could possibly argue Stones and maybe Walker had something powerfully resolute about them. (Maguire, for me, played like a pussy – sorry, fans-speak again – for much of the game; seeking petty fouls and remonstrating with the referee like some petulant, highly-strung academy starlet. He also should have scored with a simple, committed header, had he not had one eye on an incoming challenge). Before the two goals the second half performance smacked more of passive inconsistency than roaring patriotism. The first had started reasonably but then been essentially mixed, with Germany looking better on the ball.

But let’s get back to the team. Don’t take issue with the formation, with three centre-backs, particularly, nor the personnel. Walker’s pace, Stones’ comfort on the ball and reading of the game, together with Maguire’s typical composure and ability to thread a pass made complete sense. The theoretical wing-backs – Trippier and Shaw – were similarly hardly controversial selections.

However. factor in the raging certainty – given Southgate’s propensity in this direction – that these ‘flying wingbacks’ would be a whole lot more fixed, and deep, than flying and then add Rice and Phillips in as well and there is a strong argument that Ar Gareth is not, in fact, that set on enjoyment. Or if he is, he just means winning – winning being the same as enjoyment. (Call me a grass-chewing, horizon-fixing hippy but I question that).

Here are a couple of hunches. Saka was un-droppable after the previous performance: the coaching team might not have picked him but he gave them no choice. I don’t personally see why this precluded the inclusion of Foden or Grealish or both but Southgate was looking to ‘shore things up’, not open up Germany and the game in a way that might have been, yaknow, enjoyable. Grealish is not Glen Hoddle but his career for England may be similarly conflated with the idea that skill is a luxury: that it may not, percentage-wise, work out. Ditto pace: Saka, after an encouraging start, was ineffectual and therefore placed himself at number one in the queue for substitution.

I have no argument with the removal of Saka – the game, after his briefly twinkling start had passed him by – but smiled another wry smile when the incoming Grealish was again stationed wide left. Of course he can or might affect the game out there but does it not feel truer to say that Southgate lacks the courage to stick him into the Real Playmaker’s Role – ravishingly, excitingly, entertainingly central? Indeed, given the (surely unarguable) comparative failure of England to gel and to flow in the previous games, should the Villa man not be picked from the bloody start?!?

On this broader theme – and apologies if I labour this deconstruction of the association between the concept of enjoyment and, erm, Southgate’s soul – but… Rice and Phillips? Against a mediocre German side? At Wembley? When maybe Ingerland haven’t actually offered anything of sustained import, excitement and quality-wise to any tournament since ooh, Bobby Robson(?)

How necessary are Rice and Phillips? Particularly when you have all those other bastions of immensity, behind them? I know this sounds hopelessly unrealistic but when the gaffer’s talking about thrilling the crowds can we not have a conversation about generosity… and energy… and spirit? (To be clear, this conversation need not be entirely about woolly, qualitative stuff – but also efficacy. Methinks England might play better and do better if they think – for want of a better word – ‘creative’).

Funny how you can sound like Morrissey – i.e. ridiculous and miserablist – whilst punting evangelically ‘purist’ views out to the universe. Ho hum. Somebody godda do it.

The point I’m failing to make is something about caution. Southgate is dispiritingly cautious – despite his articulate protestations around national glee. Some of us think this is not just disappointing but tactically unwise. England’s best players, their most threatening players, are Kane, Sterling, Foden, Grealish: maybe Saka might join this list, soonish. These players would enjoy it more, be more successful and generate more overwhelmingly positive vibes in the home stadium if they played attacking football. (Remember that?) England do not remotely play attacking football, in tournaments, under Southgate. They do not even look like they seek it.

Today England beat Germany two nil. A fabulous result. But the performance was again stodgy. Germany should have scored at least twice – Muller and Werner calamitously guilty – and had Goretzka found any groundspeed or intent he might added two more when gallumping clear. (He, like Sterling, opted to throw himself forward in search of a penalty, rather than try to burst the net).

This was a cleansing win but not a triumph of style nor a statement of manifest intent. It was just another mixed effort that lumps England into the next round. Theoretically, it might be said that the draw has ‘opened up’: Southgate’s team, frustratingly, have not.

Nice.

A nice bright start in a nice, bright Nice. A high camera-angle may be exacerbating the weight of the shadows and the zing-factor of Sweden’s yellow and the white of Ingerland: it’s clearly baking there but maaan, I’m close to reaching for my shades, here, too.

Could be the same for Steph Houghton, who pops a pain-killer early on, following a blow to the head.

There’s some decent but unthreatening bluster-at-pace from both sides, then Sweden score. Greenwood, fortunate to be restored ahead of Stokes in my view, fails to clear an innocuous cross and Asllani accepts the gift.

Barely a minute later, Greenwood is again exposed by a simple lob forward and Jakobsson very nearly beats Telford at her near post. The keeper almost comically shins the ball back into her own net, following the rebound off the woodwork. Could be that England’s left flank is being targeted.

In fact, everywhere is being targeted. Sweden are all over the Lionesses. To the extent that a second goal – beautifully curled in by Jakobsson – is appropriate reward for their first quarter dominance. In truth, the defending was again hesitant and the tall, fleet-footed striker was allowed significantly too much time and space to engineer the arc for the far post.

In the 27th minute, England fashion a sweet move but there is again a sense of passing responsibility as the killer moment approaches: Kirby is off-side whilst attempting her tap-in.

Kirby’s next contribution is a kind of perfect opposite. The moment she receives the ball, wide right, is the moment the instinctive rush for goal begins – solo. Jinking in, she shapes for a left-footed curler and executes perfectly: class goal.

Before the Swedes can settle, Ellen White has an ‘equaliser’. Only she doesn’t. She may be unlucky to be adjudged to have handled a ball that runs up her body whilst she’s under challenge.

The England centre-forward had seemed to have rolled the defender legitimately – and there was no appeal from Sweden – but the ball may have contacted White’s arm (as well as, quite possibly, the defender’s). An unlucky turn of events and another example of VAR getting something right… that may not have needed referring.

It’s surprisingly physical: Sweden doing their fair share of old-school clattering, as if to emphasise the competitive nature of a fixture that we all regard (if we’re honest) as relatively meaningless. The TV reminds us that England have won only three of the last 20-something fixtures between these two and Blackstenius, Jakobsson and those behind seem pret-ty intent on preserving that intimidating record.

Last kick of the half and White, for once, shoots feebly when in at the angle. Half-chance only but going in level after a period in which they were largely either swamped or hurried could have been huge, for England.

Bronze has barely featured but for a single, characteristic drive, Parris has been absent and the midfield has been principally in retreat. Defensively there have been errors both on the flanks and between the central defenders, whose relationship seems less certain, understandably, than the first-choice pairing of Houghton and Bright.

Telford – asked to pass, pass and pass, rather than hoof – has it seems never really settled. A re-cap at the break: whilst the performance did improve, that lack of calm, of fluency is perhaps the standout feature and concern.

Better start to the second half, from England. Mead is soon withdrawn for Taylor, who may add more of a threat, centrally. But can the increase in energy, positivity and level of possession transfer into real control?

It appears so. As Bronze forces a corner on the hour, England are on top and finding a little sustained flow. Kirby shimmies again and puts Taylor through… but she’s plainly off. The midfielder has played at a level, finally, that she will consider acceptable.

The much-vaunted Bronze-Parris combo, however, has been ineffectual. The full-back is looking to burst forward, possibly in frustration at the lack of dynamism in front of her. In the 65th minute, this nearly costs England, as Bronze over-runs, is dispossessed and Sweden are in on that left flank. No damage.

Enter Carney, inevitably, on the 73 minute mark. The retiring maestro is there for sentimental reasons but she is also a real candidate for Person to Make a Difference By Threading a Brilliant Pass. (Which is what England need – someone to find that moment of quality – of clarity).

As the game stretches Jakobsson smashes in a worldie of a cross, which is just about cleared: England have to gamble and they are.

We’re seeing flashes of the possession-based game Neville wants to play, in this second half – there were none in the first – but I am struggling to remember a meaningful contribution from Lindahl, the Swedish ‘keeper. There really has been very little carved out.

Scott, Carney, Kirby are busy centrally but still not able to get White or Taylor clear. I wonder, now that Mead and Parris are both departed, if their best chance is a sharp one-two or a lung-bursting run from deep, such is the stoutness of the Swedish defence.

Bronze’s frustration continues; she gives away two unnecessary free-kicks but still finds herself unmarked with the ball falling to her twelve yards out. She volleys well enough but the ball zeroes in on Fischer’s forehead – cleared.

Zigiotti could finish it but hits Telford’s legs. Moore is rightly booked for checking her gallivanting opponent. The ref blows. A moral victory for the Lionesses, who win the half on points – but they lose the game and the medal.

Carney notably retains her calm after the whistle; she looks more angry and disappointed than sad. The Swedes, meanwhile, are emotional. Good luck to them. They deserved this. England’s tournament? Hmmm, let’s think.

Neville has done well. After the scepticism and outrage regarding his appointment, I think he’s answered most critics. He is clearly heavily invested in this: he gets it and his manner as well as his manners have been close to impeccable.

His view of a united squad, all contributing has been largely successful. His view of how this England should play is fine enough too – just maybe compromised (as so often in sport) by individual frailty or inability to rise. 

His bankers – Houghton, Scott, Bronze, possibly Bright – have been committed and strongish but not world-beating. (The fourth-place finish is bang on, wouldn’t you say, for these players, in this tournament?)

Disappointments and frustrations include the VAR stuff, Bronze’s seven-out-of-ten (for a nine-out-of-ten player), Kirby and Duggan and Parris. Successes would include White, not just for her goals but for her intelligent centre-forward play and, more broadly, that sense that there is a pattern there to aspire to – one which is beyond most of the teams in this World Cup. There are still places to go.

Finally, both these teams have made a contribution, here, to the Big Picture Stuff. Women’s football – women’s sport – is surging. The development, the profiles, the quality, the entertainment is now more visible day-by-day. If there is any disappointment for England maybe that will pass, as players realise and appreciate that they are making this game, their game, authentic and real and compelling.

To hoof not thread.

Part of me wishes – honestly – that Jack Wilshere would just go out and have a few beers and smokes and be him. Then bundle his way past a protesting Woy-in-a-wight-lather (okay, cheap but doncha just kinda resent that flustering pomp thing Hodgson’s got going?) and on to absolutely dismember some half-tasty international opposition. Singlehandedly. In a tournament game. With little flip passes from the outside of his left boot. Threading DNA molecule-like clusters of wall-pass-to-the-power-of no-no-no-he can’t- YEE-EESSSSAA like some cack-handed and slightly boozy Fabregas. But then part of me wishes he would just give in to his fate as a perennial crock; put us out of our misery; break all available limbs in a rash challenge leapfrogging a bollard outside some niteklub in Prague and have done with it. We deserve that, surely – to be put out, right out, of our misery?

This billowing pro and contra emotion around Wilshere is all about… what? When did it start?

In the very beginning something about him stirred us. When he first dinked a tiddlywink of hope into our Ovaltine. When he first semi-loped (can small blokes lope?) and semi-swaggered onto the park in the white of England. We some of us sat bolt upright on the couch for the first time since the Wicker Man. We put away the bedtime drink and reached for a cool beer. In Wilshere it looked like we’d finally found one.

Not only did he have that slightly retro Landun schoolboy(ish) confidence fing abart ‘im – the whiff of catapults in playgrounds or blotting paper splatted expertly into the khazi ceiling, or fizzing past teacher’s ear, he oozed, crucially, excitingly, with what we tend to lamely call ‘culture’. He was so comfortable in possession there seemed little doubt he might actually actually express that higher thing, that football. But perhaps the binary peaks in our relationship with this phantom tightened early around the simple unpatriotic truth; that his was a Spanish Stroll, surely and this was therefore unlike us? It was likely better than us, better than the turgid precedent for tarnished gold but could it prosper in the Three Lions kit?

Plainly with Jack the potential was there to burst exhiliratingly through the fusty limits of what had been us into something better and – please god – more competitive. That caressing of the traditionally renegade sphere, that invented time and space, that fifteen yard passing range, that coolness in the clamour. He spoke of other worlds, of brave new everythings where Ingerland played – competed – with Alonso/Xabi/Schweinsteiger. Momentarily, he really did. At the end-stop of our fifty-year deathlike dearth, it just seemed possible that we might have one but experience having traumatised us, we waited quietly.

We waited and symbolically or otherwise the poor lad got crocked. No – he actually did get crocked – for a living, it seemed. Season after season. In practical terms the granddaddy Gerrard simply dropped a gear and the axis with Lampard persisted – hopelessly – and the national side of Ingerland went on being the national side of Ingerland; woeful; emasculated; subtle as an air-raid; dense as a docker’s sandwich. From before Sven to Fabio to Roy we all traversed together the saddening terrain from one cliché of a failure to the next, with all of it predicated on that raw inability to treasure the ball – to hoof not thread.

With every fibre Wilshere enacted his understanding of – his protestation against – that dumbness. But he was never there, or he never had ‘a run at it’ – injuries gnawing away at both his momentum and our belief. With every absence, with every ‘lay-off’ for the ῠber-Gooner we the resigned flopped out again with another miserable beer and more carcinogenic snacks. Rather than being the pivot at international level, the boy barely featured.  Cruel.

At Arsenal too Wilshere flitted and flattered, his Wenger-approved neatness and penchant for centrality being only sporadically key to their easy, double-clutched movement. Like his club though, there was maybe was/is something one-paced about his game; pleasing mid-gears, so much fluent transition but a lack (alack!) of murderous high-voltage. But I find myself in the past tense…
The possibilities for England still  include saviourhood/irrelevance/absence through injury. As always, availability for selection will define things.
The juicy prospect of a critical role at the rear point of a midfield diamond aired itself recently. Given that Sterling of Liverpool featured at the prow of this formation, a Gor Blimey tingle ran through some of us. We all know (and I imagine even Hodgson knows) that Jackie Boy is happiest asking questions of a central defender thirty/forty yards from goal. However, his brilliance at collecting and feeding and moving and threading with bodies around him equips him beautifully for the (deeper) Let’s Get This Baby Movin’ role too. He is good enough to not just carry the metaphorical water but also the expectation. He is close to England’s finest at (say it again) treasuring the ball and building a threat. So let him have a whole lump of possession and (with Sterling at 10 in front) the other buggers better watch out.

That the blend, the detail of this is still palpably unsorted by the England hierarchy tells us plenty, I would argue, about Hodgson’s lack of foresight. Henderson suddenly appears to be a nailed-on starter and this perhaps alleviates some of the fears around Wilshere’s lack of focus defensively-speaking. Much depends on how much width and creativity (or constriction and ‘control’) the wider two of the four diamond players are asked to provide. Sterling has already earned the right – ahead of Rooney, incidentally – to be the free spirit taunting the space immediately in front of the opposition centre-backs. Does this really mean that we have to be (as it were) culturally cautious elsewhere to allow for this luxury?

Hodgson may feel that he has to ‘protect’ our admittedly ordinary back four by opting for durability more than creativity but how ‘bout he told the defence to grow some and the essence of the diktat became about us with the ball? How ‘bout he/we stopped to count the number of defenders in his side and concluded that two of them probably don’t have to mark anybody for eighty percent of the game? And Gary Neville demanded intelligent pressing and brilliant – international level brilliant – defending with or without a shield?

In other words rather than denying expressivity in our own team by selecting surplus minders in our midfield could we not trust those who can really play to play? Huh?

Qualification for the next major tourney should be straightforward enough now following a good win in Sitzerland.  Hodgson has the slack he needs to be positive, to mould a brighter way forward.

The Spanish Era may be over but not in the sense that it remains clear (now and always) that quality of touch/vision/passing are the keys. Not how or if you ‘can tackle’. Not capacity to perspire in the name of the shirt (even.) Quality of touch and the presence and confidence to play and treasure the ball is it.

Wilshere if fit (yawn!) must play central. He could play deepish and own the team strategy. He could. He could blossom and so could the new generation. They could. But the fear remains that he simply won’t get the chance. Because his ankles seem knackered and the culture – our culture, not his – still works against him.

Immediate reaction? This is a crisis.

Unwise and unnecessary to be too gentle on the lads, just because of their alleged general impressionable yoofness. Don’t forget these people are massively over-remunerated athletes who live in a competitive environment but cannot seem to accept that challenge. Not when it gets big on them.

I’m not typically a hard-hearted sort but it feels like they’ve scudded beyond the range of our sympathy and even if some of them are decent enough blokes they’ve been so Sunday-League hapless we’re entitled to unsheathe the knives.

Lots of what we have seen from England was barely international standard; there may be cultural reasons for that or structural reasons or sociological but that’s where we’re at. I rate the main protagonists (ha! Like they affected anything!) here; the view being of the tournament rather just tonight’s dismal showing. I think I may have been generous.

Hart 5 – unconvincing. Probably our best but this again reflects very low standards elsewhere.

Johnson 5 – ordinary and rarely exposed entirely – which was something of a pleasant surprise.

Cahill 4 – ordinary and occasionally totally duff. Distribution often woeful.

Jagielka 4 – ordinary and rarely looked comfortable. Is actually quickish and reasonably dynamic if poor on the ball. Not here (except the poor on the ball bit). Nerves or just found out?

Baines 5 – offered a glimpse for about fifteen minutes against Uruguay. Otherwise a pale shadow.

Sterling 6 – nearly fabulous against Italy. The one player who can be reasonably satisfied with what he offered. He lifted us but then was garbage against Uruguay, mysteriously.

Gerrard 5 – a significant disappointment again. Could certainly play on in that Liverpool role – deep-lying, strolling about. Hope he doesn’t.

Henderson 5 – okaaaayish because we don’t expect fireworks… but (doing the easy job, remember) barely made any impact.

Rooney 5 – not a total embarrassment. Just ordinary but missed key chances.

Barkley – huge distance away from fulfilling Golden Boy status. Genuinely hope he gets there but this was not the start he would have wanted. Even given that his brief is a high-risk zone, he was disturbingly wasteful.

Lallana 5 – needed to show us something – that fluency, that movement, that composure. Didn’t, really.

Wilshere 4 – may have been unlucky with injuries but may have been lucky to get a further opportunity; which he manifestly didn’t take. We thought he may be the answer 3 years ago; his cuteness and skills seemed set to bring in some new, cultured, contemporary age. May be now that his chance has gone.

Wellbeck 4 – poor and probably the closest to full-on embarrassing at times.

Sturridge 5 – good against Italy. Disappeared, pretty much, against Uruguay, diabolical against Costa Rica.

Conclusions?

Need a book or at least another blog but clearly the manager was neither motivational nor tactically bright enough. But the players can’t hide behind that. They appeared marginally less petrified than in South Africa, marginally less rooted but still that central soul-crushingly painful fear of the natural gamble ate away. Only Sterling flew, looking and no doubt feeling in his element. And then he – the real Raheem – was gone again, against Uruguay.

So how do we get players – even ordinary players – to (in that famous phrase) express themselves?

Firstly you choose a superb manager; an inspirational sort, ideally. Then that manager chooses a dynamic blend of characters for his squad. Guys who will turn up, more often than not, when those big questions are asked. (If we again have to stick the label Mentally Strong on this then so be it). Then you work with them and sort a team pattern. If players are not up to being flexible or are not pretty damn comfortable in international fixtures – specifically, if they don’t look comfortable on the ball – you get shot of them. That ease over the pig’s bladder in Munich or Rio or Belfast is a NON-NEGOTIABLE. Wherever they play, positionally. Plainly we still lack that.

Sure there are questions about training methods and percentages of foreign players and all that but dumb maths says we should have enough bodies to gather a competitive international side. (If, for example, Uruguay can.)

I’m not going anywhere near those arguments right now. I’m just going to say that against ordinary opposition we looked (can I use the word literally, please, please?) Hopeless. And therefore I revert to the word crisis; in the knowledge that we have some young talent but a whole load of work to do. If Jones and Smalling (for example) are the future then yeh – a whole load of work.

So… what have we learned about England?

Maybe not much. Because we can only speculate about what might have happened should Roy have been moved to (say) bench Rooney and Wellbeck for Uruguay. Or Gerrard/Henderson – or whoever. Because the wry, chortle-inducing truth is we’re into the lurid, ridiculous and (c’mon!) essential business of this or any World Cup now: that sanctuary or graveyard or AA Meeting equivalent for all of us lovers and/or bitter haters and bawlers who just wanna say something about England. Because England are out (already) and that’s what we’re left with.

We may love to have known how an out-and-out 4-3-3 might have gone. Or how a yet more decisive lurch into free-form, youthful expressionism could be – dispensing with the presumed anchor that was the Liverpool skipper and casting off instead around flashers and dribblers and marauders like Barkley and Sterling, with Wilshere and A.N. Other manning the hospital ship. We may.

At the more caustic end of the spectrum we may be muttering darkly about the criminal, soul-draining absence of Cole, Terry and Carroll, whose presence might have a) stemmed the right-sided success of Italy in particular and b) dug the ribs of artsy pretention wherever it threatened to indulge – for or against.
There are a zillion great arguments for why England have failed again, many of them accepting of and possibly even grateful for the mild resurgence (or emergence) of some occasionally brightish attacking football. But what do we need to take note of? Is there cultural stuff as well as specific technogubbins around individuals or areas of the park? What can we learn – even if we can’t agree on it – what have we learned?

A few thoughts, vaguely geographically put.
• It might seem weird to start here in the context of arguably bigger issues elsewhere but… our goalies. Hart – himself another fumble away from outright membership of Dodgy Keepers Inc – is almost certainly the best of a mediocre bunch. That briskly faux confidence worries me and more importantly surely undermines any defenders quaking out front. He made minor errors again early in last night’s game, including patting away two corners like a reluctant twelve-year-old schoolboy press-ganged between the satchels. I freely admit he is not our biggest problem but he is a crack in the foundation.
The bigger question, of course is where are our ‘keepers? Answer – not in the Premier League.
• Full-backs. Twelve months ago Baines was a genuinely fine modern full-back. Bossing games with his energy and craft; ‘bombing on’ with almost undeniable vim. This season’s form has gently dipped and in this tournament we’ve seen just a wee hint of his best. (I’m thinking last night, either side of the Rooney goal – something worth noting, perhaps?) Then, without entirely blossoming, Baines was finally rolling; available, incisive, as opposed to nervy and literally withdrawn.
The chronic failure to defend ‘his’ flank during the Italy game was a strategic as well as an individual flaw. Ar Leighton might certainly have done more but Rooney let him down and so did Hodgson, for failing to direct remedial action or changes.
I confess to being mildly interested in the argument (however) that A Cole Esquire might have barked more successfully for support when Pirlo and co were unpicking England down his side of the park. Tight call as to whether Cole should have remained in the squad – with Baines then a candidate for either an advanced wing-back slot (possibly even in front of Cole against Italy?) – or the full-back position proper. Lastly on this it seems only sensible now to play Luke Shaw in the final game, does it not?
• Johnson. Has been something and nothing – which may not be as bad as forecast. In defence not exactly routed but crucially last night sloppy and slow to close down Cavani pre that peach of a chip for Suarez’s first, headed goal. In attack, where he can look positively Brazilian when the flow is with him, he was broadly unable to find the necessary pass or the surge to take himself clear. Johnson was medium pallid rather than petrified and diabolical –as he had been in South Africa.
• The two holding players disappointed. Henderson was in there to buzz about and cover but also to hit committed passes forward – to thread things. He did little of this, being if not an irrelevance, a minor minor player. Gerrard we needed – bigtime. We needed him to find both that easy control from deeper positions but also the whiff of, the threat of Roy of the Rovers that changes things. The cruel errors aside, he has significantly underperformed again, being simply too marginal when he – being one of few who could inspire in this way – had to grab a hold and shake his side to action.
Stevie G has been wonderful but not, in my view, for England; he’s been solid or so busy playing within himself that he forgot to really play. Ludicrous to criticise, perhaps but he will know (and he has said) his England career is a six out of ten not the eight he should easily have achieved. And now that career I think is over.
• The three who played behind Sturridge agin Uruguay will all feel England’s pain acutely. Wellbeck because he was relentlessly awful – presumably simply nervous beyond the ability to co-ordinate – Sterling because he fluffed too many passes and never broke the shackles and Rooney because he should have added to his single goal. Sterling, having been hearteningly in his pomp against Italy, has shown enough to get more opportunities; the other two… I’m not so sure.
Rooney was visible, without being eye-catching. In a first half that was largely (let’s be honest) barely of international standard we wondered if he was heading for a dispiritingly early seat back on the bench. Later he did improve as England had a goodish spell and he scored that goal/removed that monkey. But without being the calamity that his previous tilts at major championships have been (after his international infancy, as it were) this has been another low-key affair; Wazza has shown the world little. The brutalist view might be that this is the moment to move on from not just Gerrard and Lampard – the obvious oldies – but from Rooney too.
Wellbeck did reasonably well against Italy but we know he is no striker. He can sprint beyond folks but rarely does it. Mostly, he looks reasonably comfortable at elite level and yet… it doesn’t quite happen. When Townsend is back competing for a place and if the vogue turns towards Lallana and Barkley, he may be struggling.
• Sturridge was a tad isolated and a tad wasteful against Uruguay but he is our best genuine striker, no question. Much sharper and more dynamic than Lambert and yes, clearly ahead of Rooney. Like Rooney last night there were times when he failed to provide that crucial option for the midfield – he was too static, too markable – but he is a threat, always.
So much for the Director’s Notes. Where does this leave England?

If that sense of a significant cultural shift towards pacier, brighter football moves you – Italy game? Sterling? – you will no doubt draw away from the harsher view. Unless you think Hodgson’s hand was forced only by media pressure towards a gambol with the kids? In which case vent thy spleen fully once the final fling is flung, when rounder conclusions may be drawn on Roy’s inadequacies. (My guess is Hodgson caved in to the pro-Sterling/pro Liverpool style barrage rather than genuinely experienced some conversion to energetic and open play. He remains a decent enough but irretrievably conservative type unsuited and unable to energise the individuals and thereby pursue a dynamic game). But that’s just me; a former twinkling genius in the Duncan McKenzie mode – the sort of bloke, in fact, who never got picked by conservative gaffers.

Look if you played centre-back or full-back at whatever level, them thar Suarez-related cock-ups will define your fury. If you hate Liverpool, you’ll be pleased the whole thing blew up so sharpish. Whatever way we approach this, England are out after two games, which is apparently historically bad (as opposed to the hysterically bad under Capello last time out). And yet…

Seems to me there is no longer (simply) a monumental skills deficit and therefore no (single) imperative to embrace finesse. Improve skill, sure, but finding the blend of characters and the tactical framework to do the job has been as key as anything in Brazil. Part of this is about developing guys who are tough enough to stay clear-headed when the squeeze is on. Are enough of the doughty stoppers and the precious youngsters gifted enough and committed enough and up to it in knockout football – in World Cup games? Weigh up the football of it and the human. This is the work of the top manager and it’s demanding work.

We knew before England went out there that this side was ordinary and the defence weak at this level. We couldn’t be sure how the rarer talents might go. Put simply it was mixed – heinous errors, unsurprisingly punished, with an occasional burst of English footie. Two central disappointments for me personally? 1. The teams that beat us (so far) aren’t special, by any means. 2. My concerns about the gaffer largely confirmed.

England remain a side that tends to lack fortitude – yes! Mental strength! – as well as technical/tactical intelligence. They need a truly great and ideally visionary manager. Expect little to change under Hodgson and no major improvements until somehow… the pool of talent deepens.

Compare and contrast.

I know it’s daft… but just for the fun of it. Imagine there was some real intellectual weight to those impulses racing round. Imagine you really could make rilly valid points maaan by flicking that switch between footie and rugby realities. Relax; we’re all doing it but only some of us are daft enough to come out.

Hmmm. Hodgson and Lancaster. The one looking last night like a faintly doddering gramps on’t beach, wi’ t bucket an’ spaaaade, ‘n baggie shorts, like. T’other – despite Northern roots – a brightly forward-thinking member (arguably leader) of some new, bold, expansivist tendency, reassuringly or perhaps worryingly word-perfect but plainly succeeding with his revolution towards enlightenment. How the FA could do with er… a swap.

But we know it doesn’t work like that. Stuart’s upward curve, his Smooth Operation is his own – and England rugby’s own. His fondness for setting out both cultural and chronological stepping stones and then (blow me!) stepping neatly over and through them appears not so much justified as brilliantly engineered. His team have gone from dullards to committed dazzlers in no time. Where there was Johnson’s monstrous intransigence there is now hard-earned fizz and buzz – or at least the potential for that. They are dynamic. Rugby England has become a fifteen man game again.

Roy meanwhile appears to be stuck in what feels like the usual quicksand. Players subsumed beneath too much ‘responsibility’ and maybe simply too much fear. Players who can play not playing through… what? Fear that minnows like Honduras might score. Fear of the expectation that goes with being England – even when there is a generational low in that expectation – because England have been so shocking at tournament football for so long?

What IS this thing that so debilitates the whites of Ingerland – the footie whites?
Part of it must surely be lack of inspiration. Roy plainly does not motivate the group; certainly not in the sense of freeing them up. If England do go on to prosper in Brazil, it seems more likely to have been down to an individual moment of brilliance than through general, spring-in-the-stepness. England look dull and often downright wobbly.

Last night’s weirdly storm-affected game was, despite what FA staffers may say, a failure and a waste. The momentum again drifted or went backwards, because England were sloppy and yes, dull. Forwards notably simply often unable to control balls pinged at them; Hart back into that unconfident loop. Wilshere (despite really needing a performance) was infuriatingly close to pitifully wasteful and Rooney unconvincing at best; Sturridge just literally off-target. This week’s golden boy Barkley epitomised something of the oppressed state of things by being almost completely absent, despite playing 10 for half an hour against a poor side, down one man.

As a team England looked short of will, ingenuity, energy. Most of the second period they were what us over-educated scribes term ‘shite’. Rubbish. Against a side who looked largely Sunday League and who lost a bloke after 60-odd minutes. Much of this falls at Hodgson’s door.

In the moment of opportunity, with a team that is known to be limited but which has pace and brightness amongst its cohort, Roy has and will look for steadiness – Wellbeck not Sterling. He will counsel Baines against really ‘bombing on’ – playing his natural role, the one that got him picked – and thereby compound the sense that there’s little chance of breaking out. Just in case they (England) come a cropper. That narrowness, that lack of generosity towards fans, players and the game has been a central flaw in England footie’s approach for years.

I am fascinated by the importance of belief, in sport, as anyone who has read my blogs will have realised. My strong suspicion is that even at the very highest level the role of the coach is massive. This is NOT, I swear, because I happen to be a coach, it’s more about experiences through playing sport at decent (admittedly not elite) level.

The coach needs to be the spark as well as the strategist. It’s not enough to sort team shape. Players need inspiration – license. They need to believe in you the coach and to be liberated not enchained within the system. This is about relations, then, deeply personal stuff. Or rather it perhaps demands an (intuitive?) understanding of personalities – and the ability to touch differing individuals – to get to people. Most of us have been in dressing rooms where nobody listened to the coach, because he/she didn’t have us under that spell. It’s a deeply unsatisfactory experience. But the sharp, communal buzz that comes from maybe just a few words from a coach who is respected (or often loved?) is real sporting magic. Transformative; inspiring; precious.

Stuart Lancaster I have doubted and I still have concerns about his capacity to whole-heartedly inspire. But he is light years ahead of Hodgson in terms of what he has delivered and what he offers. England rugby is/are contenders. They are also entertainers, remarkably transformed when we look at a) their playing style b) selections c) their capacity to gamble.

Lancaster has been bold enough not only to use words like vision with a straight face but to enact change, to step or gambol towards that aspiration. That target is to establish a dynamic and structured and generous (i.e. open, diverse) playing style – that has the guile, power and responsiveness to beat great teams. The England rugby coach doesn’t think conservatism can win him the World Cup but that this new model might. Not only is he right, he deserves to be right.

Defenders of Mr Hodgson might argue that Lancaster has the resources – the players – to go the braver route. And that the footie man doesn’t. In fact I think Hodgson, in the absence of great players has been gifted an extraordinary opportunity. We all know his young fliers are flawed but just how well-equipped are we to play that allegedly mature international cat-and-mouse thing? Far better to say bugger it and let Barkley, Sterling and Sturridge go play. So do it Roy.