Perhaps the most depressing thing about England’s 1–0 win over the Czech Republic Tuesday—a victory that clinched the group for the Three Lions in the opening round of the Euro Cup—was that England seemed to be trying.
The gap in quality between the two teams was apparent, but that was less of a problem for the Czechs than the difference in intensity. England’s players were trying harder: pressing more intently, winning second balls, and showing a willingness to dribble past their direct opponents that the Czech players never did. The Czech offense went off like a damp firework. Even the statuelike Harry Kane nearly won some of his footraces with the Czech defenders.
For a time, it looked like England was actually going to press all these advantages. After squeaking by Croatia 1–0 and grinding its gears futilely against Scotland in a scoreless draw, here manager Gareth Southgate’s team revved its engine from the opening whistle. It hit the post within two minutes. It got the goal within 12. It got yanked forward toward the opposing net via the energy of new starters Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka, who ran at and through the Czechs at will.
Then, after 20 minutes of fun, England brought it back into the garage and put the cover on, but not before trying to run the thing in reverse to see if it could get the miles to roll back. The team didn’t generate a chance worth counting in expected goals after the 28th minute. It took nearly 40 minutes of second-half play for either team to register a shot in the half, and that one went wide.
The game was, for England, another solid performance that smacked of disappointment. It won the group, yes, but it mustered just two goals in three games, all of which were played at home. Given all its immense talent, such a display in the group stage is mystifying. The team entered the Euros as one of the tournament’s favorites to win the whole thing; it’s played like rubbish. What’s the bloody problem with them?
One popular scapegoat for the team’s lack of spark has been Southgate’s team selection, particularly his insistence on playing two more defensive midfielders and his persistence with Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden in the wide roles of each of the first two games. Southgate did finally dip into his deep bench of fleet-footed wingers/playmakers for the game against the Czech Republic, starting Aston Villa’s Grealish for the COVID-isolated Mason Mount and the 19-year-old Arsenal star Saka in place of Foden.
The lone goal came from three of these players, with Saka starting the play by dribbling through the Czech midfield. The ball eventually found its way to Grealish on the edge of the box, and his cross hung up in the air long enough to give a backpedaling Sterling time to get underneath it and nod it home.
Unfortunately, even the newcomers couldn’t keep the wheels spinning after the first half-hour; most of England’s promising attacks after that point were simple fast-guy-go-vroom long balls to one of those guys, with Kane sometimes dropping deep into midfield in order to play provider.
England has so much talent in these positions that it’s tough to pin its lack of attacking ideas on any of them. They each provide different balances of playmaking, dribbling, and goal-scoring, but they’re all drawn from broadly the same template: elusive danger men who can get past the first defender then take advantage of the defense scrambling in front of them. The vagaries of fit and form—someone pointed out that Saka decimated Czech Republic left back Jan Boril when the pair met each other in the Europa League this season—may incline Southgate to pick one or the other, but you almost have to try to render that much talent so ineffectual. There ought to be ways to make it work regardless of whom you choose on any given day. (Though it might work better if Southgate didn’t seem so determined to marginalize the player who might be the best of them all: Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho.)
That England have played so timidly, so consistently would seem to be evidence that the bloody problem is structural. It’s apparently by design that England appears ponderous and heavy-footed and deathly afraid that the opposition might stumble into a chance to counter against them. Every time someone charges forward someone else retreats to take his place; you can see players struggling with the decision to get open or run back and provide cover. The team builds attacks as if it has to wait for the inspector to come by and sign off between each step.
The way Southgate has his team playing is meant to limit the risks it faces. England commits its considerable attacking resources only at the moments of greatest opportunity and spends the rest of the game making sure as little happens as possible, lest some of those happenings prove disadvantageous. If that sounds rather soulless, then you have an understanding of what it’s like watching England play. This is a team that could be so much more. Its players are better than nearly everyone else’s; it should be able to work things happening into an advantage. Instead, it’s like watching a general election campaign run for a safe seat, a boxer trying to win on points from Round 1, a soccer match that could have been an email.
This is not so different from how Southgate’s England played during its run to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup. Nine of England’s 12 goals scored in that tournament came from set pieces—which include penalties, corner kicks, and free kicks—and which Southgate correctly identified as a Moneyball-type advantage that his team could exploit. The manager and his assistants drew inspiration from both the NFL and the NBA when drawing up England’s innovative dead ball routines, which makes sense since the vast majority of game action in both American sports leagues involves working to get players open against set defenses. (Watching the England players yelling and gesticulating at each other about where to stand and where to run on every corner kick, it’s surprising they haven’t introduced the big graphic play cards some college football teams use. If Southgate keeps his job after this tournament, look for them in the 2022 World Cup.)
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The team’s infusion of attacking talent has, theoretically, opened up new avenues to victory. Of the forwards and attacking midfielders brought to Russia in 2018, only Kane, Sterling, and Marcus Rashford are on the squad in 2021. Between the two tournaments, a more expansive England ran rampant over its underdog opponents. The last time it played the Czech Republic at home, in qualifying for this very tournament way back in 2019, it beat the Czechs 5–0. Bulgaria was dispatched 6–0; Montenegro 7–0; Iceland, who knocked England out of the 2016 Euros, 4–0.
That version of the team hasn’t carried over into the Euros. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; modern international tournaments have tended to be won by teams playing it safe. France retreats into its own half and plays far more defensively than its talent would warrant, but it can hit back in multiple ways: through the speed and technique of Kylian Mbappé, the passing and power of Paul Pogba, or the improvisational brilliance of Antoine Griezmann. Southgate hasn’t found a way to let his talent win matches similarly, perhaps because he’s too afraid that giving them that freedom will lead to defeat. To rely so heavily on set pieces is inherently limiting; eventually you’re going to run into a squad that defends set pieces as well as you can draw them up.
If that’s the plan, at least. England has scored so few goals thus far that it’s tough to say whether its set piece magic has deserted it, or whether Southgate has been waiting for the knockout rounds to deploy the more promising innovations. The manager is going to have to come up with some way to juice the offense by England’s first knockout game, when it gets whomever finishes second in the France-Germany-Portugal-Hungary group. None of those teams, not even Hungary, will follow England through its dour paces with as much docility as the Czechs did. None of them will prove so easy to control. What might Southgate’s players be capable of when it has no choice but to put the pedal to the floor? Even if his team goes down, will the manager let them find out?