The Man Who Missed That Pen.

I will be updating this post live. Foolishly. Ghoulishly, perhaps.

 

Call it pre-match nerves but I feel a preamble coming on. No – worse. A pre-ramble.

I think it’s a fact that most of us with any interest in Ingerland were a little disappointed when Southgate was appointed; we feared that traditional lack of bite, spark, genius amongst England Managers would go on. Simple. The bloke’s another Fairly Bland One, reassuringly measured, non-controversial, after the boorish moron Allardyce. That’s what we thought.

Today at fourish, interviewed by the accomplished Gabby nee Yorath of the Beeb, he again piled up the evidence of our chronic underestimation. Not just eloquent but witty. Not just calm and responsible and shrewd but streetwise and persuasive. Clever but humble in a particularly good way.

I still harbour concerns but in the rough and tumble of things – if, specifically Colombia duff up his Young Lions later – I will be writing to my MP to express furious injustice and note to the universe that ‘Southgate has holistically transformed the way of things around the national team: that indeed may be his signal achievement, whatever happens, results-wise’.

England, under Southgate’s direction, are simply way more intelligent. Or are they?

In the sense that Southgate is palpably operating at a high level of sensitivity and awareness in respect of man-management – yes. With regard to playing style – yes (probably).

The Gaffer absolutely gets that the massaging or manouvering of egos or frailties is as central here as anywhere. By that I mean in any team the leader must understand the blend, the chemistry… but then be able to intuit (or rally, or bully) towards effective action or choice beyond.

Some people get that, some don’t. Southgate is strong in this – stronger than noisier, more obviously ‘inspirational’ managers, perhaps? Increasingly, it seems possible that his apparently quiet way is a way to create something surprisingly mercurial; players playing beyond expectation.

So a positive view really might suggest that largely because of the exercise of these soft skills (and of course essentially good tactical knowledge) the Man Who Missed That Pen has steered a refreshingly enlightened course. This doesn’t change, if England lose tonight: neither do my concerns.

Despite Southgate’s excellence, I wonder if too many of his players might feel the heat, if not literally, then via that fearful blowtorch conjured through brutally-heightened exposure and (that word again) expectation. I have been both supportive and critical of Sterling and remain concerned about his capacity to drift or disengage from Big Challenges. Let’s start with him.

I understand the guy’s a talent but would I be offering him that lynchpin/unpicker/punisher number ten role? Probably not. He’s been too anaemic too often and despite his goals for City his finishing is often dispiritingly poor. If you were twisted enough to bet on somebody ‘disappearing’ then maybe it would be him.  (I hope I’m wrong on this and if so then this will be another triumph for Southgate-as-Quiet-Wizard).

Elsewhere, Lingard’s progress feels patchy and like Rashford’s his talent appears inconsistently expressed. Hope he and his United colleague (who we imagine will start as sub, yes?) can get their incisive, threatening heads on rather than those wasteful ones.

The main threat to England, though seems likely to be from carelessness or overplaying at the back. Stones, Maguire and Walker can look fabulous and imperious but all have an error in them. With that in mind, I’ll be kindof expecting Colombia to press crazy-high and hard, early on, to try to force a clanger. If England do concede – especially through a goalkeeping or defensive howler, then that enlightened culture is going to be tested… which is as it should be, eh?

Enough, for now. It’s 17.57 so I better start my own, intensive warm-up.

18.50. Southgate on ITV, now. Cool. Emphasises ‘mental resilience’. Prob’ly read the blog? Then bloody adverts.

18.55. Glenda as Chief Pundit? Na. Get him to chip the keeper,  or hitch his shorts up… but talk? Nah.

18.58. Anthems.  An away game, then, for England.

Time for a ridiculous prediction? I think England are 4-1 better than Colombia. But that’s ridiculous!

Last thought, pre-kick-off, looking at the team. Not great quality but the blend… hmmm.

19.02. Neither team pressing really high.

19.05 Chance for England. Free-kick in danger zone, followed by threatening cross but disappointing corner.

19.08. Early signs that Lingard looking brisk and sharp. But Alli may be doing that too-cool-for-his-own-good thing. Maybe.

19.15. Great full-back’s tackle from Trippier – comprehensively robs the winger. England on top but no chances so far.

19.15. Brilliant move from England. Trippier flies round on overlap and ver-ry nearly finds Kane at the far post. Can’t get over the header.

19.20. Decent game. England dominating, as expected, Lingard and Kane going well.

19.22. First half-chance (nearly) as the ball squirts across the England box, then wide. Falcao can’t capitalise and his left-midfielder blazes ludicrously over.

Colombia into the game. England happy to drop in to a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 out of possession.

19.28. No sign of Alli in the game. Sterling quietish, too – or unable to make anything happen.

At that, he has his first decent run… but slightly wimps out on the shot or the killer pass.

19,32. Some girlie physicals from Cuadrado, on Maguire. This would be the Cuadrado who was an embarrassing failure in the Premiership – as was his team-mate, Falcao. Falcao at least looks like he wants to be involved, tonight.

19.35. Any momentum England had… now lost.

19.38. Clumsy challenge on Kane offers the England talisman a juicy 23 yarder. Around which, there are handbags.

Henderson, rather crassly provokes some physical contact with the head from from Barrios. The Liverpool man then does a Neymar, the lead commentator talks garbage… and Trippier – not Kane – doesn’t make anything of the opportunity. The game has become feisty and scrappy.

19.40-odd. Now expecting more a tense, messy 1-0 to somebody – or maybe 2-1. Can’t be certain if Dele Alli is still carrying a knock but either way you’d be tempted to hoik him at the half and prepare Rashford for the usual Sterling swap soon after. (Interesting test for Southgate’s positivity, that). The City man’s been unconvincing – ineffectual.

After a good start for England, the game reaches the half goalless and rather ugly. Opt not to listen to the over-hyped discussion about a potential red card. Cobblers; Henderson stoked it then faked it – can’t be more than a yellow for that!

Also… didn’t enjoy Maguire – who was close to the incident and therefore will have seen Henderson’s exaggeration as well as the defender’s lack of discipline – gesturing for VAR. Bit cheap, I thought.

Second Half.

First thought; really hope England don’t chicken out and ‘play patient’, in the expectation of a late goal or extra-time. Think they’re better playing with energy – think that instinctive, hearty stuff is contagious.

20.11. Lingard again lifts the pace and offers a threat. Almost.

20.14. Nice in-curling free-kick from Young nearly offers Maguire a free header… but no.

Then; MOMENT.

20.16. Kane is pretty much shafted by his marker (Sanchez) during yet another embarrassing fracas at a corner. Ref rightly gives a pen. It takes about an hour to placate the outraged Colombians before the England skipper nervelessly clips it home.

Real danger that England could get sucked into the anarchy, here. The Colombians are frankly out of order at almost every moment, early in this period. Henderson is foolishly booked, for responding. Daft.

20.23. With the overwhelmingly pro-Colombian crowd in a fury, their players join in. Falcao is prominent in some shocking and intimidating abuse of the referee. There appears no way that the South Americans can finish the game with eleven on the park..

There is almost no football, now – just spite. The experienced Young, fouled but hardly decapitated, has a long lie down to take the sting out of things.

20.30. Minor moment of casual petulance and frustration gets Lingard – England’s best forward player – booked. Then England gift one or two further, unecessary free-kicks away – but not in defensive positions. Stones, notably, remains staggering composed in possession; Maguire is not far behind on this; he also carries the ball forward with some purpose and offers a threat at the occasional set-piece.

20.36 means only about 15 minutes to see this out – if that’s to be England’s approach.

20.37. Lingard, breaking almost clear, throws away most of his brownie points by patently trying to draw a pen instead of smashing it past the keeper. Cynical and depressingly dumb. Could have won the game right there.

20.42. Dele is finally removed: 20 minutes late. Dier.

Oof. Walker offers Colombia their  best chance of the night. In space and with a decent angle, Cuadrado drives unimpressively over.

Things are urgent, suddenly for and from Colombia. Falcao leaps over Henderson to only head tamely. There is some angst but little in the way of real threat. The disappointing Sterling makes way for Vardy.

20.51 & we have five minutes extra. Feels like England should be okaaay… until Pickford has to pull off a worldie, for a corner.

MEGADRAMA though, as Mina, the centre-back nods it down-but-then-agonisingly-over Trippier… and into the net! 1-1. WOW.

Extra Time.

Firstly, there are now questions. About Lingard’s spurned opportunity; about whether Tripier misjudged the scoring header. Maybe too, about Southgate’s arguably reactive management. Alli was muted at best throughout – could’ve been hoiked way earlier. Sterling did okay but again lacked that killer instinct; I wouldn’t have started him.

21.03 it says on my ipad, as the whistle goes. Controversy immediately as Young (maybe more than his opponent) show the studs a little in a 50-50. Both inevitably roll about a bit.

Random thoughts: Henderson done little. Kane I think pretty ordinary in the second half. An almost complete lack of composure from nearly everybody on the park, now. Except Stones. Probably.

Dier’s come on and done nothing right – almost comically. Some signs maybe that Maguire’s legs have gone. A sense that Colombia are more likely.

Suddenly there’s no core to England. The central defenders can’t thread the ball into midfield – certainly not centrally. Rose is on for Young so England do now have pacy wing-backs but it’s Colombia who are playing with more verve and commitment, now. As the first half of extra time comes to a close, England look… if not gone… then up against it.

The Colombian huddle is characterised by positive energy – belief, maybe?

21.23 and the first chance falls clumsily to Vardy. His left-foot volley wouldn’t have counted – he’s off. Soon after he gets a second chance… but fluffs it, rather, disappointingly.

For some time, Henderson and Lingard have gone missing – or at least ceased to be influential. *Except* Lingard runs on and on, almost profiting after a good move from the right.

Rashford is on. Dier misses a golden chance, heading poorly, wildly over when absolutely unmarked, eight yards out. Ouch.

I had a feeling England might win it 4-1. Because of Lingard and Kane. Now, we have penalties.

Normally I’d wander off, disinterested at this point. So I will… after one more thought.

Southgate’s done well; he just doesn’t have the players. Except that just maybe, he does – the right complement of players. Young’s obduracy for Sterling’s relative frailty? Lingard’s running for Henderson’s one-pacedness? Kane’s killer-striker thing, absent elsewhere. This is Southgate’s team: could it yet be his triumph?

 

 

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Three Lions Meltdown… averted!

So England win. Probably Southgate deserved that. But there are *things*…

  • Sterling. We have to take care around Sterling, because the poor lad has had so much flak and much of it has had a racial component. I’m pretty clear that my long-held view that he’s a good player but has serially lacked the presence/confidence/bottle to take on the no. 10 role for England is not partial – it’s simply a football judgement. He was obviously weak again tonight. He will likely stay in the side because of a reasonable(?) level of loyalty from Southgate and because England won: he’s a lucky man in that respect.
  • Henderson was heroic in that workmanlike way that average international players can be. He was available, he nosed the ball around, fair play to him ; that stuff demands courage. But let’s again say the obvious: whilst he is pickable (because any side needs balance) he should not be England’s go to man to break team’s down or create an irresistible surge. He’s not good enough for that.
  • Kane nicked two goals, both half-decent finishes but for me his overall contribution was below par. Not enough physical presence, not enough movement and shocking that he didn’t rip the ball out of Ashley Young’s hands for that free-kick on the edge of the box. That moment was made for a captain, centre-forward and budding icon and Southgate should be having a quiet word about it. Kane should be winning more balls in the air, too – particularly hoofs down the park from Pickford. A) This is part of a centre-forward’s job. B) Given the generally poor standard of international defences, imagine the carnage that the occasional well-directed flick-on (to Lingard or Rashford) might cause.
  • Lingard played in occasional bursts but again missed presentable chances. In that way he resembles Rashford, whom we all like (right?) but who shares that tendency for wastefulness. The two are useful and sometimes electrifying but they are both still playing too fitfully – too much like teenagers – to be in the starting eleven together: unfortunately.
  • Alli may have been crocked from the outset – although this would seem to be an un-Southgatelike possibility – but he started brightly before disappearing, alongside Kane. He is a talent but another one who is burning waaay too sporadically. I quite like his spiteful streak, though not his propensity for raw cheating, which is at a more grubbily cynical level than Sterling’s weirdly childlike tumbles. (Not that Alli cheated tonight; he simply ghosted out of it.)
  • Stones and Maguire were untroubled generally (though not flawless) but it was the Burnley man who was a worthwhile protagonist going forward.
  • The keeper looked settled enough, though he was almost completely untested.
  • At full-back, Young played at his usual predictable pace, delaying throw-ins, setpieces and the flow of England’s game. (He is fortunate indeed to be in the side – presumably this is courtesy of his ’reliability’, experience and physical resilience). Trippier, on the right was excellent – or excellently positive. Keen, sharpish, urgent, bolder than anyone; unfortunately for him, playing at a higher tempo than his comrades seemed prepared to join with. He may destroy feeble Panama on his own.
  • England started hugely encouragingly but did drop into standard tournament mode briefly in the second half; self-pitying, directionless, unwilling or able to raise a response to opponents sniffing a Three Lions Meltdown. Maybe they were even a little lucky to get the win, so late, so simply, from such a defendable dead-ball situation?
  • But Kane’s finish – from Maguire’s lusty header – was both instinctive and skilful… and surely deserved, overall.