A performance as unconvincing as the decision to light up the Wembley arch in the rainbow colours.
England’s chances of winning this World Cup right now look as far away as this supposed protest against Qatar’s laws and attitude to LGBTQ+. Such present concerns also had historical echoes. England still haven’t beaten USA in a World Cup match. Much more relevantly, they for long periods looked an inferior team in this dismal 0-0 draw. They had fewer chances and much less impetus and energy.
It means that, far from going and lifting this trophy, England must currently be much more concerned with going out. That is the position Gareth Southgate’s side have now put themselves in.
And while it would take an awful lot for a faltering Wales to turn this group around in the final game and eliminate England, we are talking about a team that went from rampantly putting six past Iran to one barely able to muster a shot on target at the Al Bayt Stadium.
It was reverse alchemy, turning the fine wine of Monday into water-carrying. The USA can be much more optimistic and played with the requisite enthusiasm.
It’s all the more remarkable since one of the reasons that the Football Association decided not to persevere with a player gesture after the OneLove armband controversy was because they wanted to ensure the squad was completely focused on the football and not distracted. It seemingly had the opposite effect, the meekness of that pitiful gesture – lighting up a stadium thousands of miles away when the entire point is supposed to be putting pressure on Qatar in Qatar – infecting England’s attitude.
Some criticism should be constrained, of course. It is possible that this is just the equivalent of the 0-0 draw with Scotland in Euro 2020, where an inferior side raises itself due to the emotional involvement of the fixture. It may just be England now feeling the effects of the abrupt start, or the type of lull that just happens in tournaments.
The problem with all that, however, is that the performance pointed to greater issues; structural issues. It didn’t just create concerns for this group but what might happen if England get through.
What might Spain or Brazil do to that midfield? How would that two work against Pedri, Gavi, Sergio Busquets and Rodri if Southgate persists like this?
USA and a midfield led by Yunas Musah and Weston McKennie caused them enough problems.
Gregg Berhalter had evidently identified Jude Bellingham as England’s main attacking link, and USA’s entire gameplan was based on pressing him out of the match. It was effective, and in turn led to Declan Rice getting overwhelmed when USA countered.
Most of their best moments came from surges that exemplified this intensity, McKennie blazing over from a Timothy Weah run, Sergino Dest bursting through and Christian Pulisic almost snapping the crossbar after scorching through.
You could say it was an admission of this that Jordan Henderson was eventually introduced, but it was obvious. USA were increasingly overrunning England.
Against that, Southgate’s side seemed to have no other option but to play the ball over the top. Such a play put in Bukayo Saka early on, for England’s one good moment, but it only ended up showcasing American commitment as Walker Zimmerman put his body on the line to block what would surely have been a Kane goal.
It was as good as it got for a long time.
England were crying out for imagination, but also impetus. Phil Foden obviously should have been introduced but the next problem there was that England couldn’t seem to even get the ball into areas where he would do damage, let alone get him on the pitch.
By the 75th minute, England still had only one shot on target.
Jack Grealish was brought on but was left with the responsibility to carry the ball long distances.
USA did evidently start to feel the effect of their own long runs, and receded as the game ticked into the final 10 minutes of normal time. It was then that Southgate introduced Marcus Rashford, no doubt hoping to stretch those strained legs further.
The moment never came. The effect never came.
That in turn recalls older questions about Southgate’s ability to affect such matches.
The boos from the England end became louder as the second half went on. They were all you could hear at the end of the match, even above the dismal music of the PA system.
These are familiar sounds for Southgate, especially this year. England have run into familiar problems.
The new “protest”, however, only set the tone.
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