England 0-0 USA: 16 Conclusions on boredom, Outcomes v Performance, midfield woes and Scotland parallels

Date published: Friday 25th November 2022 11:20 - Dave Tickner

Overall, we’ re going to say that was a bit less fun than the 6-2 win over Iran. But apparently that’s not even one conclusion, never mind 16, so here’s another 2500 words about England 0-0 USA…

 

1. Let’s get this out of the way first, because it is quite important. That is a perfectly adequate result for England, who now need only avoid a four-goal (or absurdly high-scoring three-goal) defeat in the final game against Wales to go through.

It arguably doesn’t even really matter whether they win the group. Nobody in Group A looks that good either and finishing second does at least take you out of France’s quarter and into what is technically Argentina’s and thus could be against Mexico or Poland or Denmark or anyone. Might be 2018 all over again, lads.

 

2. Now we’ve been given strict instructions from the boss not to turn 16 Conclusions into a hatchet job on Sam Matterface, because we did that once before and it got unpleasant. What we will say as a general point is that it shouldn’t have taken 90 minutes for Matterface and Lee Dixon to tell viewers the specifics from point one above. It really is the headline news of the evening.

Dixon spent much of the second half quite rightly pointing out that a draw wasn’t a bad result, just he was giving the wrong reasons. His argument was that it was an okay result because there’s still another game to go. He and Matterface should have been saying “It’s not a bad result because it almost certainly puts England through.”

Qualification scenarios feel like quite an important part of tournament narrative, and we’re still not getting informed coverage on it from broadcasters until far later in the piece than we should be. Much of what England and Southgate did tonight was still deeply annoying and conservative but placed fully in context it does make a bit more sense.

 

3. We’re also not going to say anything at all about England producing thrilling, free-flowing 6-2 wins on BBC and drab 0-0s on ITV. We’re better than that. I’m not, though. This was the sixth match I’ve covered for the site in this tournament and the fourth goalless draw. I’ve looked at the schedule – Serbia v Cameroon looks a game to avoid if you’re hoping for goals, goals, goals. Fair warning.

 

4. This England performance was an absolute stinker, though. No bones about it. Was it complacency? Energy conservation? Just plain old weariness for an unsurprisingly unchanged starting XI? Perhaps nobody will manage to put two decent performances together back-to-back in this tournament. There are plenty of reasons to explain why, and so far the only team to come close to being decent in two games has been Ecuador. In accordance with the prophecy.

 

5. And we’re really racking up the goalless draws, aren’t we? That’s five now inside the first 20 games. There have, clearly, been some bloody good games at this accursed World Cup but there are now a growing list of pretty shitty ones too. That’s always the case at major tournaments, of course, but this specific tournament is the one least equipped to cope with a surfeit of those given the general atmosphere that surrounds it and its season-interrupting rudeness.

The worst thing that’s happened for Qatar has definitely been how rubbish their own team has been. The second worst thing is surely the introduction of a discourse around whether or not this tedium was slightly less bad than Morocco v Croatia the other day. (The answer, for what it’s worth, is that yes, this was indeed slightly less bad than that.)

 

6. So is Harry Kane fit, or what? It’s an almost impossible question to answer, and we’ll probably never really know. He looked sluggish and off the pace for most of the game against a team full of running and endeavour, but still had a couple of nice touches that didn’t quite come off.

The problem with trying to ascertain Kane’s fitness after an injury lay-off or scare is that it is almost impossible to distinguish a regulation happens-to-the-best-of-them off night for Kane from a half-fit-shouldn’t-be-out-there one. Whenever he has a bad game he always looks a bit sluggish. Whenever he has a bad game he always looks half a yard off the pace. It could mean everything, it could mean nothing. What did happen, though, was that Kane missed a couple of very presentable chances. Most notably in the very last seconds when he sent a free header yards wide of the target. It would have been an absurd smash and grab, but also an extremely Harry Kane moment.

 

7. England’s best player on the night? Mr Jacob Harry Maguire. Which is excellent news for him and Southgate but against what is a hard-working but limited USMNT side should be pretty worrying for England. We’re pleased for him, though. It’s fair to say the US played to his strengths rather more than Iran did when belatedly waking up in the opening game, with Maguire able to feed on a diet of crosses to head dutifully clear of danger. Which he did faultlessly for the entirety of the evening. Maybe Luke Shaw and especially Kieran Trippier’s alarmingly lax defensive displays were all a 4D chess ruse to help Maguire get his mojo back.

It might have done the trick, too. He even managed to produce a couple of those curiously effective yet endearingly awkward-looking forward forays down the left for old time’s sake, bringing to mind one of the most perfect descriptions we’ve ever heard of any footballer ever: Harry Maguire marauding down the left wing looks like an over-confident Hollyoaks actor during Soccer Aid.

 

 

8. There were a couple of moments of Peak Southgate for his critics to get their teeth into here, and they will obviously need little encouragement after the way England spent the game with the handbrake on, intentionally or otherwise. Bringing on Jordan Henderson was one, with the only minor inconvenience being that it did sort of work and a ragged, disjointed England side did find a modicum more control when the Liverpool man came on.

The other was his beaming smile in the post-match interview, a marked contrast to his grumpy demeanour after the Iran game in which the two had clearly had greater impact on his mood than the six.

 

9. He was broadly right, though, which is why he’s taken England to a semi-final and a final at the last two World Cups and yer da has not. England’s defending against Iran wasn’t good enough and here it was definitely better, in the middle at least. Maguire and John Stones may have spent too much of the first half passing the ball back and forth between each other in seeming tribute to that Simpsons bit when Mexico play Portugal, but their defending was essentially absolutely fine. They had to do more of it than anyone expected or wanted, but they did it pretty, pretty, pretty well.

Remember Carlos Queiroz’s three words to describe Southgate’s England. Practical. Functional. Realistic. Southgate definitely didn’t send his side out to be quite so ponderous or defensive, but he definitely sent his side out knowing that a repeat of the defensive lapses against Iran would be unacceptable but a point would be acceptable. He even used the word “unrealistic” afterwards to describe the idea of qualifying inside two games. Again, while he may have a point that this specific tournament makes it a bigger ask, you do have to admire the commitment to the brand that sees “beating the USA at association football” as an “unrealistic” target. We all got so giddy after the last game what with all the goals and loveliness and such that we thought it could happen! But Sensible Gareth knew better!

 

10. But please, Gareth, England fans can sometimes have a little Phil Foden, as a treat. We’ve no problem with the starting XI for Iran, and no problem with Southgate’s utterly sound assertion that said starting XI had earned the shirts for this one. But by half-time it was quite clear that something needed to change and the fact Foden stayed on the bench throughout a second half that was for long, agonising periods even more moribund than the first was a puzzler.

Sending Jack Grealish on to win some free-kicks made sense, and Jordan Henderson as a sort of prefect figure to cut out the nonsense did also work no matter how much it annoyed everyone at the time. But Southgate ended that game with two substitutions up his sleeve and given the tiredness and sloppiness it was a significant surprise not to see England’s most technically gifted player given any kind of crack at it.

Phil Foden after a match

11. We must also take extreme care not to get too far down a road that suggests this performance was in any way what Southgate wanted or expected from his side. He will be happy enough with the outcome because he is, as we’ve noted, a practical and realistic man. Viewed through that prism, everything is still fine.

But he will be surely be alarmed at quite how bad his midfield in particular was tonight. Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham both had perhaps their worst games in England shirts, while Mason Mount for once actually put in the precise nothing of a performance his detractors claim he puts in every single game. Which is going to generate unfortunate noise and he’s now more likely than ever to be the fall guy when the inevitable switch to a back three comes along.

England never had any control in midfield and that gave the evening a strange feeling. You always felt that the US had broad control of the middle of the park, but never once did it really feel like they were going to turn that into something tangible on the scoreboard. It was fraught, but in a vaguely abstract way, like its significance will only be felt further into the tournament but was never going to matter all that much on the night.

 

12. The USA midfield deserves huge credit, though. The three best players on the pitch were Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yusuf Musah. And probably just about in that order, although picking between them is nitpickingly harsh when all were so good and more importantly were all about the collective. All brought different things to the party, with Adams sitting the deepest of the three and controlling proceedings in a way Rice pointedly could not, snuffing out attacks before they became a problem and passing the ball neatly and efficiently.

McKennie’s driving runs were a menace to England throughout his 77 minutes on the pitch and the blot on his copybook that was a clear chance skied in the first half was in its own way creditable for the position he’d taken up to get the chance in the first place. England’s midfielders were rarely to be found in such advanced positions.

Former England youth player Musah was the liveliest and busiest of the three in between the two other extremes. All three were excellent and massively outplayed their English equivalents.

 

13. You wonder how much of England’s apparent wait-and-see approach to the game as a whole was based on what we saw of the USA against Wales. In that game they were excellent in the first half but ran themselves to a standstill, out of puff long before Gareth Bale’s equaliser and in truth pretty lucky to cling on from there.

Did England expect the same tonight? Perhaps, but the US were markedly less frenetic in the first half than they had been against Wales, preserving more energy albeit at the cost of some of the threat they posed Wales. But England also did nothing themselves to wear the States out. It really was an almost sarcastically passive display from a side that has designs on winning this whole tournament.

 

14. What is now inevitable is three days of discourse around Southgate’s limitations and failings. That is inevitable. The 6-2 win was wildly unexpected and shouldn’t be devalued by what happened here. But that is not the nature of these things. The powerful twin effects of recency bias and confirmation bias have put Southgate and his team under a bit of pressure that wasn’t really necessary. Avoiding defeat was the most important thing about tonight whether we like it or not, but did it really have to be quite so very drab?

We’re already bored of it and it hasn’t even started yet. There is now a real chance of Multiple Clamours. The Foden one is inevitable and we’ve got involved ourselves. Expect too to see some significant TAA Clamour, often from people who’ve said England couldn’t trust him at right back in a major tournament. James Maddison Injury Watch takes on greater significance now too.

 

15. And if you think that’s harsh on our nation’s great and varied media, then we must draw attention to this.

One of the very, very few benefits of having to cobble together 16 Conclusions on an evening game is getting to see tomorrow morning’s front pages before publishing. We genuinely feel sorry for each of the three proud red-top night subs who excitedly thought “Lads, I’ve got it” here.

 

16. But having drawn attention to those identikit front pages, we’re going to have our cake and eat it by ending on a facile, obvious and already stated literally everywhere else tonight observation of our own. This was basically the Scotland game from the Euros, wasn’t it?

Goalless, uninspiring fare against a blue-clad team of English-speaking “rivals” who care a great deal more about England than England do about them. They may have played above themselves and dragged England down, but it was still a result that did far more for England’s qualification hopes than their own.

And the Scotland game preceded a run that only ended a fortnight later with a final and firecrackers up arses and Sweet Caroline becoming the national anthem (unofficially). Nobody has ever felt any need to dwell on that Scotland game and with any luck we’ll be able to do likewise with this one. Because it really was fucking grim.

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