England took the clock back to the dreary days of summer as their sluggish style returned, along with boos from fans, after the indiscriminate draw with the United States at Al Bayt Stadium.
The attacking verve, creation and goals that lit up the 6-2 triumph over Iran in their World Cup opener have been replaced by a England side lacking ambition and dynamism in a performance so devoid of tempo and urgency that it almost stopped at times.
And at the final whistle, fans who reveled in the fluid style that demolished Iran made their feelings clear as they threw a loud, resounding raspberry in the direction of Gareth Southgate’s players.
The perspective is needed in the context of group games at the World Cup, indeed any major tournament, and England remain in a strong position to qualify for the last 16 ahead of their final game against Wales.
But it was a chance to qualify after two missed games and an element of danger remains.
A quick reminiscence reminds us that England suffered a similar fate of a goalless draw in their second Euro 2020 group game against Scotland at Wembley and went even deeper in this tournament. Here they at least avoided a defeat which they couldn’t have complained about considering the USA were the better team.
England are still well placed in Group B, but no one can seriously kid themselves that it was anything other than a very poor performance that is unlikely to see the biggest names here in Qatar go to sleepless nights.
It was a grim echo of England ending their UEFA Nations League campaign with relegation after a summer when they lost 1-0 away and then 4-0 at home to Hungary in June. before continuing with a defeat in Italy and a draw at home. in Germany in September.
If the Iran crush suggested Southgate had taken England’s handbrake away, it was down to type, pedestrian and conservative.
There must be serious concerns about the way USA were able to drive through the England midfielder into the space in front of the defence, as well as the constant problems they caused on the left side of the Southgate team, especially in the first half.
England were grateful for Weston McKennie’s terrible miss, an effort skied just past goal and a moment of good fortune when Man of the Match Christian Pulisic’s powerful effort rolled back from the woodwork with keeper Jordan Pickford beaten in the first half. .
Southgate’s side had no control in midfield, where Jude Bellingham couldn’t repeat his classy work against Iran. Indeed, he was replaced by experienced Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson after 69 minutes as Southgate attempted to restore some semblance of order in what was becoming an increasingly dangerous situation.
England’s heavy game seemed to be crying out for the introduction of Manchester City’s Phil Foden and a touch of the X factor, but Southgate preferred team-mate Jack Grealish and shield Henderson.
In the end, England looked grateful to emerge from the Al Bayt Stadium with a point, still on course for their first World Cup qualifying destination in the group and content to not have been punished for such a disappointing effort with defeat.
‘Maguire the only ray of light’
Avoiding defeat was due, in large part, to the defensive performance of Harry Maguire, who was outstanding and held firm throughout, especially when England came under sustained pressure and a succession of corners in the second half.
Southgate’s decision to keep faith with Maguire has come under perfectly reasonable scrutiny given that the Manchester United captain’s club form has been so poor over a long period that he has been grossly surplus to the demands of the new manager Erik ten Hag after his start to the season.
The England manager’s reasoning and faith is based on Maguire’s reliability at major tournaments when they reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018 and the final of Euro 2020.
It’s too early to make a definitive judgment on whether or not Southgate’s decision was successful, but even those of us who criticized Maguire must acknowledge his excellence against the United States.
He produced a performance filled with towering defensive headers and a solid defense that will bolster the confidence that seemed so fragile, especially when he had an unflattering hand in two German goals in the 3-3 draw at Wembley in the last England match before the World Cup. .
England captain Harry Kane was full of praise for Maguire, saying: “Harry put in a fantastic performance. Every time he puts on the Three Lions badge it brings out the best in him.
“He had a fantastic game and he did it against Iran too. I’m really happy for him. He’s had a tough time in the last two years but he showed his quality today and it’s good for him. was a very important clean sheet.”
Maguire was the only ray of light around plenty of darkness for England but, as noted, perspective must be the watchword and Southgate can reflect little harm has been done to their chances of qualifying for the last 16.
Wales, despite being well beaten by Iran, will be fired up as never before by the sight of football’s longtime foe and pose the danger of opponents with nothing to lose, so England cannot be complacent.
And there certainly can be no complacency if England play this badly again. There is still work to do.