Grealish? Sancho? Will Southgate take lid off England team?

Tom Reed

It was boos not boogying for England fans at the final whistle of the goalless Euro 2020 Scotland draw and for good reason as Scotland had matched and possibly even outplayed the ‘auld enemy’.

The ‘auld enemy’ tag is supposed to refer to centuries of conflict between England and Scotland, not Gareth Southgate’s team knocking it about like a bunch of old farts.

England can lay claim to more possession but most of it was crustacean-like, with any self-respecting hermit crab screaming at the screen that “you need to get out a bit more Gareth, broaden your horizons”.

The result had been coming down the road just like the Tartan Army had been partying through London railway station concourses. They had joy in the stands and on the pitch too, while England offered precious little of anything.

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Harry Kane epitomised England’s woes, with a top-level striker expected to have pace, guile, finishing and an ability to craft his own chances as a bare minimum; Kane delivered none the above.

Kalvin Phillips is a harsh scapegoat after his Croatia performance but the holding midfielder is the master of pass-the-parcel football with little penetration. Being able to control and pass is a skill in itself but does its mastery mask an international-level dearth of ball-carrying skill, balance and technique?

Declan Rice put in one of his soggy performances and his role is symbolic of an over-cautious Southgate selection, the equivalent of checking your door is locked 50 times before leaving the house.

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Steve Clarke’s side saw less of the ball but looked far more threatening when they did; they were demonstrably more adept at passing which breached the horizontal, carrying the ball and in set-pieces.

On the bench were England players with a bit about them – Jack Grealish with his natural on-the-ball ability and calves like Yorkie bars adjusting his Alice band anxiously knowing he’s a better player than most that started but had been inexplicably left out by Southgate, the England gaffer on the touchline wondering whether he’d locked that door or left the top off the creosote in the shed.

Then there’s Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund, the first English player to register more than 15 goals and 15 assists in a major European league since Matt le Tissier for Southampton in 1994/95 but deemed not suitable for an England team that has scored a grand total of three  goals in the past four games.

And that’s the crux; an England set-up with millions thrown at it boasting an Elite Player Performance Plan that funnels every pound of investment into producing the best homegrown players via the Premier League should be serving up better fare than this.

This is a squad with two out-and-out forwards on the bench in Marcus Rashford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin who appear as afterthoughts. Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Sancho, Phil Foden and a myriad of fluid attacking midfielders through the England set-up would suit a beautifully rapid 4-2-3-1 but Southgate does not seem to quite know how to use them. He has a posh motorised bottle opener but the England boss is desperately searching for a corkscrew that he’ll never find.

Kane looked semi-final shattered in the first game of the tournament, while a nation of football fans – crushed by lockdown and desperate for entertainment – are stuck in Southgate’s silent disco of lift tunes.

That’s not to say they can’t turn it around. Maybe Southgate will have an epiphany while browsing the Ronseal website and take the lid off this England team? But that’s what the group stages are for and it’s likely too late for a rethink for the England technical team in the tracksuits.

This is a team of stats, textbooks and pitch-side Filofaxes that is ranked fourth in the world and second favourites to win the competition but, in reality, have a paper-thin right to be discussed in those terms.

If England’s goalless showing against Scotland represents the best of our football nation, then we are bang in trouble.