England look weaker than any other England in the Southgate era

Well, it’s a rather strange WC anyway. Can we star this thing? Just a thought, but is it really too late to boycott? Norway made T-shirts. Good optics.

For Gareth Southgate and England, it was another clumsy and lackluster step towards Qatar 2022. What’s the perfect preparation for those four-year-old moments of destiny, anyway? How about not scoring from the opener in almost 500 minutes? How about three losses in five games, plus a 1-0 here against so-so Italy? How about falls down?

At the very least, it would be hard to blame Southgate’s team for peaking too early, risking losing momentum, prematurely botching Prince William. Six years on from Gareth’s age, it has to be said that this is the weakest, most inconsistent this team has ever seen.

In the end, Southgate went to applaud the England fans. In return, he was booed, which seemed to swell and wax as he walked by clapping, all alone in his patch of green. You who turn the wheel and look to the wind. Remember Southgate who was once The One.

It must be said that Germany could get ugly on Monday.

And is this thing really done? The players are still good, so much credit to the manager. The only real positive was how the players ran forward. At the final whistle, Jude Bellingham collapsed to the grass and just lay there looking crumpled. Bellingham had barely stopped for 90 minutes, an oddly exposed midfield that always seemed to spin in too much space.

England found a system here that made an elegant, technical and imposing midfielder look like a man being chased by a swarm of bees in a car park. But still, no one gave up, didn’t rush, and didn’t look good about it. It is the thing that says there is still life.

What about the rest? England was terribly poor in patches. And poor in a messy way. On paper this was a progressive team, Southgate’s team is meant to be picked, a cardigan team toss. Eric Dier as a central defender! Bellingham and Declan Rice as the centerpiece of the speedy midfield. Kane-Foden-Sterling, a front line Pep – no doubt overwhelmed by Gareth’s envy – could have been. Even the fullbacks seemed excitingly fluid, at least in concept, hypothetical.

Jude Bellingham (right, watched by Italy’s Tommaso Pobega) was a rare ray of light on a disappointing night for England. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

The San Siro itself was an otherworldly sight at kick-off, a huge Brutalist spaceship, with its enormous clattering robotic legs, under a tile roof flying in the immense damp September air. A stage that is suitable for, well, what exactly?

It wasn’t just a bad game for England. It was a strange game, something mummified and indistinct, football played through a smeared piece of glass. England were jittery from kick-off, the team playing petrol station ball, always bouncing too high, always toeing away, buffering in the wind.

For some reason, the players always seemed to be facing the wrong way: Rice and Bellingham spent much of the opening 10 minutes trying in earnest to turn things around. Italy is not great. But in those opening innings, the ball seemed softer and happier in their hands, curving between the blue shirts in a more elegant parabola.

They looked in those moments like England 1.0, Olde England, the England for whom the ball is a ticking package to be thrown away as quickly as possible. Raheem Sterling had one of those nights where he seems to be playing on the jagged volcanic crust of the planet Mars. In the 36th minute, he picked up the ball 45 yards from goal and simply ran forward, head shaking, eyes on the turn like an impala bolted for a watering hole, before deciding to smash the ball hard into Kane’s neck. Which was definitely an option.

Only Phil Foden seemed to get into space in the first half, looking like he was in close contact with the inflated leather ball. Teams are strange things. It is rare to see a healthy person infected with shared ennui in this way. After an hour, England had scored 14 shots. They had 56 percent of the ball and made 88 percent of their passes. It seemed like an error like lost data.

They fell behind in the 67th minute when Giacomo Raspadori’s right toe saved the game. Leonardo Bonucci spotted Raspadori’s run. He caught a pass through the middle, saw space and angles and time to shift his weight, then bent a low, hard shot past Nick Pope’s left hand.

England pressed harder after that. They made the switch, the only switch, Gareth’s gambit, moving to the back four. And a thought arose: really, really? Is this what you have? Aren’t we going to look for another option? Southgate has never been a good tactical man. He wants control, but not inhibiting control. More room temperature control, control that exhausts you. Picking between three and four is a very broad brush. And it’s been six years now.

Is this thing done? Southgate is a vibrating man, a man of culture, a leader who wants to create a clean and clear space around his team. The World Cup is now one game and two months away. In football, change can happen quickly. It was just hard to see where this life was coming from.