As we discussed yesterday, the first half of the last batch of friendlies for the USMNT could really not have gone worse or been more discouraging. Against the B-team version of Japan, a squad that’s just about on the same plane as the USMNT, the Yanks laid a foul-smelling egg that also doubled as a perfectly-sized rake to hit oneself in the nards with. With only tomorrow’s rehearsal against Saudi Arabia left before the US has to tee it up for real, the runway is feeling awfully short.
Luckily for the US, the big bad in their World Cup group, England, have been an even bigger pair of clown shoes for even longer.
You might not have been paying attention — international breaks are a great time for fans to just chill out and maybe take out the trash or remember they have kids — but England have been woeful since last June. On Friday, hours after the US was getting their ass punted up to their neck, England was relegated from its Nations League group, losing 1-0 to Italy. Hey, at least Japan is going to the World Cup! Italy sure ain’t! (I’m trying here.)
England haven’t won any of their five Nations League games, and in fact haven’t scored a goal from open play in any of them. They have two penalties to show for it. And as is their natural state, the press is out for manager Gareth Southgate, and the air around the national team is getting pretty poisonous.
Most of the ire is directed at Southgate’s defensive tendencies, or more to the point, his tendency to absolutely turtle. England nominally lineup in a 3-4-3, but at a moment’s notice it becomes a 5-4-1 or 5-3-2 when there’s any whiff of danger, and it leaves England bereft of any attacking juice. This is what led to their downfall in the Euro 2020(1) Final. After taking the lead on a swashbuckling counterattack, and producing a couple more, England retreated deeper and deeper, allowing Italy’s midfield more and more time and space to pick passes and keep the ball. A midfield that England had overwhelmed when they rose up the field and engaged them in the game’s first 20 minutes or so.
Southgate has always had to dodge these barbs, and he does have a point in some respects. This is the tough balance of international soccer. Managers only get a criminally short amount of time to install whatever it is they want to do, even before a summer tournament. It’s far easier to make a team defensively solid with the limited time than it is to try and string together attacking fluency. When France won the World Cup, even with their unmatched array of attacking talent, Didier Deschamps was far more focused on making them lockdown. When they tried to go supernova in last summer’s Euros, they got kneecapped.
And Southgate wasn’t wrong last summer. England didn’t give up a goal from open play all tournament. They lost the final on the coinflip of penalties. It’s obvious to see why he’d stick to that plan.
But you do have to score eventually. And England don’t look like they might again. Southgate can’t seem to figure out what to do with Phil Foden, who looks like a future Ballon D’or winner with Man City and is just lost with the national team. If Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane don’t conjure something, they’re out of ideas. Declan Rice and either Jude Bellingham/Kalvin Phillips in midfield are too far from the forwards. Bakary Saka as a wingback is an attempt to address that, but he’s defensively a question.
Also, Southgate continues to insist on Harry Maguire in defense, which if that’s still the case come Black Friday against the US…KILL!
There’s also a question of how long you can ask players to play so conservatively when they get to play attacking soccer with their clubs. Eventually it wears on guys. Southgate has gotten players to buy in for two tournaments now, but a third?
Now, there’s a huge caveat. Four of England’s run of five bad results and performances took place in those June friendlies that everyone agreed no player could find a fuck to give about. It came at the end of a long, long season and everyone was already on the beach mentally. This batch of games aren’t being taken too much more seriously either, with almost all of these players having packed club schedules leading up to the World Cup (remember who signs the checks, after all). This probably isn’t what England will look like on full tilt.
But much like the worry about the USMNT, how easy is it to just flip a switch? Especially when teams will only gather a week before the tournament starts? England’s first game will be against Iran, a team under Carlos Quieroz that is going to dare England to break them down. With how impotent the Three Lions have looked, that’s no gimme. It could be that when the US and England line up, they’ll both be as desperate for a win as the other.
We know how things tend to go for England once the atmosphere starts to get testy. Southgate bought himself a lot of track with a surprise semifinal appearance in 2018’s World Cup and reaching the same stage of the first Nations League. The fact that the Euros took place when fans were just being allowed back into stadiums engineered more goodwill too.
But that’s basically gone now, as England are in a definite win-or-bust mode for the World Cup. Ask Sven-Goran Eriksson or Fabio Capello how that tends to go. The last time the US and England shared a World Cup group was 2010. They opened with that hilarious 1-1 draw against the Yanks (Jozy should have won it), which only ratcheted up the pressure and saw England slump to a 0-0 draw against Algeria that lost them the group and left them chum for Germany in the round of 16.
It’s all lining up again…