Let’s hear it for the discredited and the disgraced. The various Fifa delegates who voted to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar have much to answer for but at least they have altered the trajectory of England’s year. Normally when they have an undistinguished summer it comes a greater cost, especially in an even-numbered year. If 2010, 2014 and 2016 were miserable, just as 2000, 1992 and 1988 had been, each resulted in elimination from major tournaments, sometimes amid embarrassment. Maybe 2022 will bring relegation from the Nations League but it seems a less meaningful indignity and, in any case, cannot be sealed until September.
But the winter World Cup, necessitated by Qatar’s climate, has meant England’s three-game winless run in June has not assumed such seismic proportions. In any case, in isolation, draws against Germany and Italy represent respectable results, though coming from behind to hold Hansi Flick’s first-choice team in Munich ranks as a greater achievement than failing to score against Italy’s second-choice side at Molineux. After two years of relentless football, maybe a summer of mediocrity was only to be expected. Much of Gareth Southgate’s squad finished the season either exhausted, short of full fitness or lacking their best form. They have five months to rediscover it.
But if rotation and experimentation were themes at Molineux, there was scarcely the sense of a picture being reframed. Tests were inconclusive. Southgate’s Serie A all stars, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham, put in the kind of performances that neither booked them a place on the plane nor ruled them out. Aaron Ramsdale made a fine impression, but looks destined to be an understudy anyway.
Major questions of personnel and system did not produce compelling answers; certainly not in either the way Southgate would like, given his preference for certain players, or his growing band of critics, who argue England are dullards by design.
Mason Mount can find himself caught in the crossfire, a player beloved of his managers if not of social-media detractors. He excels at the unglamorous stuff but has done too little that is decisive of late. Mount is England’s best defensive attacker, lauded by Southgate for his work off the ball against Joshua Kimmich on Tuesday. He was inches from being a better attacking attacker, striking the bar after exchanging passes with Raheem Sterling and surging into the box.
He can present a conundrum: he is the Frank Lampard protégé who could do with being a little more like Lampard, with emulating his mentor’s scoring instinct. He has an elusiveness and had all of England’s first-half shots on target, which at least demonstrated a growing intent, but his international drought now spans 13 games. Mount has become more prolific in Chelsea colours and mustered 13 goals last season, even if five of them were against Norwich and Watford; as Lampard can testify, bullying the weak can boost your statistics but a goal against European champions would have seemed more persuasive.
Meanwhile, Jack Grealish was the cause celebre who may not have advanced his cause. Catalytic as a substitute against Germany, he was more subdued as a starter as England lacked creativity. Part of his problem is that it seems to suit England better when Sterling plays on the left. The stand-in skipper began on the right to accommodate his Manchester City team-mate and spurned England’s best chance. Grealish was at least afforded 90 minutes though the fact that Mount has started all three summer matches seems more revealing of their respective statuses.
Only Declan Rice and Harry Maguire have also begun against Hungary, Germany and Italy whereas Conor Gallagher has not been granted a minute. The chances are that he can plan a winter break, especially as James Ward-Prowse, a probable rival for the last midfield berth, got the full game. The Southampton captain may be the less risky choice and Southgate’s conservatism can foster criticism. His fondness for 3-4-3 stems in part from the safety blanket of an extra centre-back.
Playing 4-2-3-1 against Italy felt uncharacteristically bold. Perhaps it was a reflection that it was a weakened Azzurri side, featuring only two of the starters from the Euro 2020 final. And yet it offered evidence to justify Southgate’s innate caution. Twice in the first half England were opened up with conspicuous ease, both involving Sandro Tonali. He supplied the defence-splitting pass when Davide Frattesi ought to have scored; he was denied by a stunning save from Ramsdale after meeting Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s cross. Perhaps, at the top level of international football, no centre-back combination is quite good enough to satisfy Southgate. Or maybe John Stones’ reputation was elevated as he sat on the bench during the ongoing attempt to play Maguire back into form.
Amid the bright movement of the Italy midfielders there was an initial openness and a looseness at the back for England. Had this been a more meaningful match, the chances are Southgate would have sacrificed an attacker and brought back Kyle Walker. If so, then Mount, Grealish and co are competing for one fewer place. And, given Southgate’s roundhead streak, Mount’s misses may not count against him.
source: The Independent