The scale of the slump has been so great, and come from so many angles, that it has accelerated Gareth Southgate through the conventional stages of an England manager’s decline to the point where he now stands in front of a distant tier of travelling support and finds his own gesture of thanks met with booing.
That was the case for Southgate at San Siro on Friday night, just 14 months on since he faced the same opposition in only the second major tournament final of England’s history. As a multifaceted collapse engulfed his team further it was hard to reconcile a more upbeat post-match manager with the malfunctioning performance that had preceded it. The truth is that it has reached the point where the conflation of all the old criticisms – too conservative, too loyal to old hands, too unwilling to unleash certain characters – are heading at Southgate like the proverbial asteroid.
One thing leads to another: the deadly chain of plummeting confidence and accompanying performances are dragging England down. Yet there is still one factor that was evident in this performance even before Italy’s goal was scored and the slump was extended to its fifth game. It was pinpointed anew by Southgate the night before as he sought to explain the selection of Harry Maguire, a centre-back whom he trusts with the ball to build passing sequences. There is no playmaker to stitch together the two halves of his team.
In the wider chaos of England at full-time it felt like one on a list of points but for much of this game it felt like the whole point of it. The two halves of England in themselves are nothing to be ashamed of, but the disconnect between them was painfully evident at San Siro. This was a mediocre Italy team reshaping for Euro 2024 qualification and very much the kind of opposition that should be beaten by a side who think it might be world champions by Christmas.
Where is the man who will take the ball on the turn and spear a pass between the lines of an opponent? The chance that he emerges between now and the end of November feels remote to say the least. Southgate has never trusted James Maddison who is more of a No 10 than what England have in mind. They need a playmaker between Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham – England’s third man whose absence is felt with every sideways pass and recirculation of the ball.
Italy’s naturalised Brazilian, Jorginho, relatively ordinary in the great tradition of playmakers, would get in this England team by virtue of his skillset. On this night Jorginho made too few notable passes through the England midfield although the moments when he took the ball and looked upfield to try to find an empty channel were striking. There was no-one in the England team even trying to do the same.
Rice and Bellingham, outnumbered in the centre against Italy’s three, had to be careful not to be dragged out of the deep central positions where they were needed to obstruct the flow of the game. In fact, the only moments when it felt like England attempting those vertical passes, came from Phil Foden. He sometimes scampered in from the right side of the midfield and attempted to slip a pass at right-angle through the Italians.
The few chances that England had when the likes of Bellingham and Reece James could run at the Italians in the Italian’s half came when the ball was turned over high up the pitch and Southgate’s players were spared the burden of building the play. Otherwise they just had to go long. At the end of the first half, Nick Pope waved his team-mates forward and the goalkeeper launched it. The home crowd, amused, responded with the rising pitch of the classic goal-kick accompaniment. As if they had not seen this sort of thing for a long time.
England were trying to reach Harry Kane, a kind of lost polar explorer among the blue shirts in Milan and find him they did, leaping to head a long goal-kick as so many of his predecessors in the England No 9 shirt have done over the decades. But these are different times and England and Southgate have no real interest in playing this way.
Not much of the 3-4-3 formation worked, with Foden and Sterling drawn into the centre and thus denying England the width in high positions that was not being offered by either James or Bukayo Saka. Sterling was drawn towards the ball which meant he was not embarking on those just-in-time runs beyond the opposition which stretch defences and push them deeper. Instead England’s attackers were drawn away from the Italy goal to try to bridge the canyon between them and those who wished to pass them the ball.
There is a lot that is good about England when they move the ball quickly from the back, into the wide areas and attack at pace. Unfortunately, there is no specialist to break that first line and in Milan we saw just how stuck a team unable to take that first step has become.