LONDON: Gareth Southgate’s trademark garment has gone. England’s World Cup feel-good factor also has faded.
The football fervour that swept through the country during June and July was punctured by a 2-1 loss to Spain as England’s homecoming that turned into a letdown at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
No wonder some jaded fans resorted to ripping out pages of the matchday magazine and throwing paper airplanes onto the field.
For the first time in 30 years, England have lost three matches in a row. The English hadn’t even lost a competitive fixture at home in 11 years when Croatia denied them a place at the 2008 European Championship.
Those dismal days of missing out on evening reaching a major tournament seemed a distant memory when Southgate inspired England’s unlikely run to the semi-finals at the World Cup and supporters emulated the coach’s touchline fashion by wearing vests or waistcoats as they are called in Britain.
But strip back the headiness of the summer. The semi-final collapse to Croatia, defeat to Belgium in the third-place game and loss to Spain at the start of the UEFA Nations League show why Southgate has been tempering the giddiness. In the four matches of the Premier League season, Englishmen have accounted for only 30 percent of playing time.
England led for only two minutes, after Marcus Rashford’s 11th-minute strike, on Saturday before Saul Niguez and Rodrigo scored twice in 20 minutes to give Spain a winning start under new coach Luis Enrique after the 2010 World Cup winners exited in the last-16 in Russia.
“We have to expect that Spain were better than us for long periods of the game,” Southgate said. “Their retention of the ball was top class. We were a little bit disjointed in some of our pressing, particularly in the first half. But even when you press well against them they have some wonderful players that can wriggle out of problems and play first time out of situations.
“At the moment we are not able to do that when teams are pressing us high. As the game wore out we started to work that out and I think Eric [Dier] provided some stability for us. Him and John (Stones) being able to rotate positions allowed us to play through midfield better.”
Ultimately, England is still lacking technically gifted midfielders with enough big-game experience, while Spain could deploy Saul, Isco and Thiago Alcantra. Saul’s first international goal came in the 13th minute after connecting with Dani Carvajal’s cross. Rodrigo evaded Harry Kane to dart in to meet Alcantara’s free kick with a tap-in in the 32nd minute.
“I have seen teams fold in that sort of situation but we finished really strongly, created a couple of very good chances,” Southgate said. “We have to keep faith in the way we are trying to play otherwise we go back to what we did historically. There is no way I believe we will ever be a top team if we do that. We have to be brave enough to stick to our principles and just better at what we are going to.”
UEFA is yet to use video assistant referees in its competitions despite the new technology’s successful deployment for the first time at the World Cup. The lack of VAR might have cost England a point in Group 4 of League A in the complex format to European football’s new competition. Another viewing of replays might have reversed the decision to rule out Danny Welbeck’s stoppage time goal for a foul on David De Gea when the goalkeeper went to collect a high ball.
The Manchester United goalkeeper was integral to Spain’s early success in the competition that provides the path to a trophy in June and an extra route to qualify for Euro 2020, including tipping away Rashford’s header shortly after Spain went in front.
“The thing I liked most tonight was the attitude of my players,” Enrique said. “We suffered a bit towards the end but against good opponents that can happen. Now we can go on and improve.”
In another League A game in Group 2 Switzerland swept to a 6-0 victory over Iceland. It is another setback for Iceland which failed to win a game at its first World Cup in June after reaching the quarterfinals on its European Championship debut in 2016.
In League B, Bosnia-Herzegovina won 2-1 at Northern Ireland. In League C games, Finland beat Hungary 1-0 and Greece won in Estonia by the same score. In a pair of lopsided results in League D the lowest tier Belarus thrashed San Marino 5-0 and Luxembourg beat Moldova 4-0.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2018