Was England’s draw with the USA really that bad?


The first thing to say is that England were not good.

Not Iceland 2016 bad, but probably worse than they have been in a major tournament game under Gareth Southgate. They came into the match as favourites but struggled to deliver. They were outplayed by the USA for most of the first half and most of the second. And even though Harry Kane should have won England the game in added time, had the U.S. taken one of their chances England could have had no complaints.

When England have lost big matches under Gareth Southgate — Belgium, Croatia, Netherlands, Italy — they have slowly lost control of the game to a technically superior and more experienced side. But if they had lost this one then it would have been a defeat of a different kind: out-run and out-competed by a young opponent who looked more energetic and motivated than they were.

There were plenty of things wrong with this England performance but some of those are forgivable, or explicable by just how good the USA were. But if one thing stood out, it was how poor England were here without the ball. Southgate put the 6-2 win over Iran on Monday down to their brilliant counter-pressing and intensity to win the ball straight back. He had been telling his players all week about setting the right tone and that is what they did, even in the 4pm heat of the Khalifa International Stadium.

But here? After a brisk start, England never showed anything like the same speed or structure when it came to trying to win the ball back. The story of the game, in simple terms, was the U.S. gradually realising over the course of the first half that it would be far easier to progress the ball than first expected.

In the first few minutes, they were penned in, but soon enough they got out. And once they realised how simple it was just to stroll through England’s press they looked delighted to be out there in those big green spaces. By the start of the second half, the U.S. were not just digging in and waiting to break. They were dominating the ball in England’s half, and if you had to guess which side had the experience and the status and the backing, you would have pointed to the blue shirts rather than the white.

So what went wrong for England?

One theory would be complacency, that they underestimated the threat of the U.S. and thought they could win this game without giving it their all.

Another would be the conditions, out here in the humidity, just four days after an enjoyable but tiring win against Iran. This was the same England team that started on Monday, and at times they looked leggy and slow. Harry Kane did not exactly look blissfully unaffected by the kick he took on his right foot.

Kane, the England captain, struggled throughout (Photo: Getty Images)

Southgate offered up a more tactical explanation, saying that the deep positions where Yunus Musah received possession in the first half made it harder for England to press them in an organised way. Southgate even made a point of praising England’s “resilience without the ball” (specifically their recovery runs defending the box, and the way they defended set pieces), which is not how most observers would have seen it.

The manager’s post-match view was so positive that it almost made you reconsider your initial assessment that England had played badly. Southgate’s first answer was to say that he was “really pleased with the application of the players” and that they had “defended incredibly well”. In his view, this was a far harder match than many had expected it to be. He praised the structure of the U.S. and their speed on the counter-attack. It was quickly apparent that for him this was not a bad point.

Southgate reminded the world that most teams take three games to qualify for the next round rather than two. The 2018 scenario, when England beat Tunisia and Panama, allowing them to make eight changes for Belgium, was the exception rather than the rule. England’s position, with four points from two games, is not a bad one, and they can win the group if they beat Wales on Tuesday.

Southgate also knows something about the realities of tournament football. Tournaments are not won by the teams that shine the brightest in the group stages. Portugal were awful in the group stage in Euro 2016, France barely got going four years ago until they played Argentina.

Even Italy last summer were not obviously the best team in the competition from the start. If you remember those Euros, you will remember England drawing 0-0 with Scotland in their second game at Wembley, a night not too dissimilar to this one. (Although it must be said: England were worse here than they were that day against Scotland, and it is harder to qualify in this format than that one.)

But still, the recent history of tournaments is worth considering. And it shows that the one thing that unites successful teams is not a nine-point group stage and certainly not a dazzling style of play.

What matters is having a solid defence to build around, and the capacity to keep clean sheets. That, in Southgate’s mind, is the necessary but not sufficient factor uniting winning teams.

And he could barely conceal his obvious pride with his centre-back pair John Stones and Harry Maguire in how they dealt with this game. It was tough facing a team with Haji Wright and Timothy Weah up front and Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie on the wings. But Stones and Maguire were not the sources of England’s problems. They used the ball well, defended smartly, and stopped the U.S. from turning their possession into too many big chances.

Southgate praised Stones and Maguire as “absolutely outstanding on the ball” and said that playing with as much composure as they showed against the American press was “unbelievably difficult”. “It is only when you have two players like we have that you can appreciate the strain of the game that they can take.”

There must be a degree to which Southgate is putting a brave face on a difficult night. He must know that if he came in and said that England were poor or sloppy or complacent then it would dominate the media for the next few days.

This is already, as he put it, “the tournament of external noise” and that would only make it worse. It does look, judging by England’s shutting down of any further political gestures over the last few days, that Southgate and the team do not want to create any more stories or distractions. They just want to focus on what they are here to do: win the World Cup.

Not many people will have watched this and thought that England were likelier to lift the trophy than they were beforehand. It felt too different from Monday, too much of a retreat, too much of a reminder of old England campaigns and drab 0-0s against Algeria in 2010 or Nigeria in 2002.

And yet despite all of that, and even despite the boos at the end, Southgate seemingly thinks that this game was in fact a small step in the right direction. “To be a successful team in tournaments you’ve got to show those different faces,” he said. “And we did that tonight.”

(Photo by Adam Pretty – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)


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