“The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England team, who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield,” said the Atletico Madrid right-back. “But when we pressed them, it turned out that they haven’t.”
While England now focus on Saturday’s third-placed play-off, and the chance to rotate the squad again, there will be bigger questions ahead, going into the Nations League, matches with Spain and Croatia, and on towards Euro 2020: How do England live with teams like this in midfield?
While there was no single villain, no calamity, no real disaster behind England’s defeat on Wednesday night, there was one clearly identifiable problem, which turned the game against them. Which is that England had no-one of the class of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in the middle of the pitch.
Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Jordan Henderson are three very good players and all of them will leave Russia with their reputations enhanced. Lingard and Alli both scored important goals while Henderson set England’s tempo and assumed leadership responsibilities on and off the pitch. He was hailed, rightly, before the match as one of the most important players in this new era.
But none of those three players is a technical wizard. None of them can run a game. Each of them plays his best at top gear, but struggles when the game requires more nuance, more depth, someone to put his foot on the ball, take a deep breath and have a look around.
Because when you only bring legs to a game like this, what are you left with when those legs run out?
“We had a little less composure with the ball in the second half,” Southgate admitted afterwards. “Maybe that was a consequence of being ahead with the least experienced team in the finals, with an opportunity to get to a World Cup final.”
It was impossible not to wonder, as England slipped further and further away from Modric and Rakitic in the middle of the pitch, scrambling around hopelessly after them, what they would have to do to match them in midfield.
Obviously England do not have a Modric in reserve, and cannot try to plan a way of producing their own. Modric is probably the greatest midfielder of his generation from any country in the world. Talents like him cannot be manufactured, and when he eventually steps down from the top rung of the world game, he will not be replaced.
But England will want to find midfielders who can take better care of the ball, just so they can keep their heads above water on nights like this. The management were disappointed that Adam Lallana could not get fit enough to make it into his 23 for this World Cup. Lallana is perhaps England’s cleverest creative midfielder, and while he is not Modric, he is more comfortable at holding onto the ball and keeping possession moving than England’s current midfield.
Jack Wilshere is more adept at that too but he will have to prove his fitness at West Ham United to earn his place in future. Harry Winks impressed on his England debut at the start of the season - out-shining Harry Maguire that night - but then struggled with an ankle injury for the rest of the season. Southgate will be eagerly following his new season with Spurs, hoping to be able to use him again in future.
All of this remains in the future for England, and Southgate hinted at his press conference that he hopes to be able to further progress the playing style over the next campaign. And that his hands are slightly tied by the players he can pick.
“Our job is to maximise the strengths we have, and to make the most of the team we have,” Southgate said. “The style of play, we have evolved enormously in a short period of time, but there is still a long way for us to go.”
“Against the very best teams, we’ve not managed to get the wins. But we’ve won a lot of matches that, historically, England haven’t won. So we have to look at the progress we’ve made and, as the players get more experienced and other young players come through who we think are very exciting, then the style of play and threat can evolve even more.”
Southgate spoke in glowing terms here on Tuesday night about the prospect of integrating the next generation of youngsters, the players who won the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups, and the European Under-19 Championship, into the senior team. For their quality but also for the high expectations they bring, having started winning trophies already in their international career. Maybe those players, Phil Foden and the rest, will change what England can do in midfield, to keep up on nights like this.
All of this is far away in the future and all of these players deserve a good reception when they come back home. But one day England will face a similar problem to this again, in a big knock-out game, and Southgate will want a better solution.
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