Qualification will have to wait at least another game for England – but an actual trophy may have to wait much longer.
That was what felt truly consequential for England about a late 2-1 defeat to the Czech Republic, that also ends the prospect of a 100% record and brought a first actual qualification loss in 10 years. They couldn’t confirm Euro 2020 qualification as had been hoped, but did confirm a host of gradually forming problems which Gareth Southgate is going to have to solve if they are to have any chance of fulfilling so much promise and talent.
A party turned into an inquest – and that doesn’t just refer to the group of fans that predictably disgraced themselves in Prague with arrests before the game.
On the evidence of this, a game against a fairly limited Czech side, England’s promise and talent is only really seen in the forward areas.
Problems further back meanwhile came much more clearly into view. It was probably their worst performance in some time, maybe since Tunisia in the World Cup, even if much of it has been signposted.
So many of these issues, after all, stemmed from something that has been a problem for much longer: the midfield.
Southgate still doesn’t really know his best selection, and the players themselves still don’t really know how to control a game. It will always put any defence under more pressure, and it doesn’t create enough for the attack.
Here, a 4-2-3-1 system designed to accommodate Mount as a number-10 did produce one of the game’s few moments of actual quality – in that pass for Kane to so brilliantly flick in for Raheem Sterling to win the penalty – but also produced a number of specific problems.
It mean there were acres of space for the Czechs to run into, and no one in the England side to really assert control of that area. That was never going to be Jordan Henderson here, whose performance was symbolised by two wayward long-range passes just when he attempted to pick a ball. Declan Rice meanwhile hasn’t fully settled into this English team.
On the whole, it ensured a fairly chaotic and shapeless match, where the intensity of Czech running was initially one of the more influential factors.
England actually seemed a bit surprised by the ferocity of it, and it led to more errors, and a few moments of danger around the box.
That’s just open play, though. The set-pieces are another matter, that do point to something more systemic.
Little wonder Southgate accepted that it has become a “situation” – he pointedly refused to use the word “problem” in his pre-match press conference – to “solve”.
Some of it seems basic.
Michael Keane was heading the ball straight into the error at his own penalty spot, only making it even more difficult.
Hence the Czechs responded to Kane’s penalty with haste, and ease. Centre-half Jakub Brabec capitalised on the errors of his English counterparts by bundling the ball past Jordan Pickford. Patrick Schick might have done better, then, from a similar situation moments later.
Southgate had admitted beforehand the side have made “obvious errors” in recent games, but these were beyond obvious. They were staring everyone in the face. It will provoke bigger discussions about the exact make-up of that defence, especially at centre-half.
The problem for the Czechs was that their game was based on energy, and they always looked like they would run out.
It was if they gave England as much as they could early on, until there would come a point when they’d have to dig in a bit more doggedly.
But dig in they did. They started to pick more holes in England’s defence, rather than forcing them.
Alex Kral and Lukas Masopust brought two magnificent saves out of Pickford, before the moment came.
Man-of-the-match Masopust cut the ball back for substitute Zdenek Ondrasek, who fired past Pickford.
Czech’s chances of reaching Euro 2020 now look alive.
England’s chances of actually winning the competition now look further away than they have for a long time.
The win, and celebration, never came.
The questions and criticisms, however, have arrived in force.
Southgate suddenly has a lot to think about.
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