After failing to beat Spain, Germany or France in friendlies, England coach Gareth Southgate has much to do if he wants to be competitive at next year’s World Cup. Southgate wanted to test his re-modelled team against the best in non-competitive matches, and came up short. That was highlighted on Tuesday, when England lost at France 3-2 despite playing most of the second half with an extra man against a team resting some key players.
Southgate, who has been in charge since September following the resignation of Sam Allardyce, is honest about his team’s true level. Against Spain in November, England led 2-0 but drew 2-2 after conceding sloppy late goals. Against Germany in March, England lost 1-0.
“The reality is I’m not surprised. Those teams are the very best. In the last few years we haven’t got anywhere near any of those teams when it’s come to tournament and finals,” Southgate said. “That’s why we need to play them. We need to see the reality of where we are. You’ve got to test yourself against the best, otherwise it can mask where you might be.”
England sometimes coasts through qualifying campaigns but falls short when it really counts.
That was true at last year’s European Championship, when England won all 10 of its qualifiers but then was eliminated by Iceland in the last 16 of the tournament. England did not lose a qualifier before the 2014 World Cup, but went out in the group stage in Brazil.
Southgate is trying to instill a new way of playing, based on a quicker and more fluent approach with a higher emphasis on slick passing and skill. He is allowing his players to express themselves, which has not always been the case with previous coaches.
Against France, there were some encouraging flashes of the style England hopes to master, notably a good ability to bring the ball forward at pace. Striker Harry Kane scored twice and looks to be a real threat at international level, as does quick-minded attacking midfielder Dele Alli.
But the old flaws crept back in to outweigh those positives.
Throughout the match, England’s flat-footed defenders looked terrified against speed. When the chance was there to stamp its authority on the game, after France had center back Raphael Varane sent off in the 47th minute, England simply lacked composure.
“I thought we looked more anxious while they went to 10 and they stepped up a level,” Southgate said. “It was a problem for us all night, their pace and their athleticism.”
Southgate’s point about struggling to deal with athleticism is surprising, considering that the majority of his players play in the highly physical Premier League.
However, the relentless pace of that league also makes it difficult to know when to save energy for when it’s most needed _ the way the midfields of France, Spain, Germany and Italy do.
In England, the players can look dynamic, even dangerous, when things are going well. But when a move breaks down _ often due to rash, hurried passing or a lack of technique to control that awkward pass _ players are often caught woefully out of position.
France’s midfield, featuring Manchester United player Paul Pogba and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, dominated England’s on Tuesday.
England’s defense committed to pushing up, leaving huge gaps for young forwards Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele to exploit with their pace. While John Stones has skill and a good passing range _ which is what England needs to bring the ball out cleanly _ he is prone to errors. Gary Cahill and Phil Jones are rugged but slow and easy to get behind.
Apart from established international Olivier Giroud, the French forward line of Mbappe, Dembele and left winger Thomas Lemar was hugely inexperienced. The 18-year-old Mbappe, the 20-year-old Dembele and the 21-year-old Lemar total only 16 international appearances between them.
But they still managed to tear England’s defense apart in the last 30 minutes, even with France a man down. With Pogba probing behind, Mbappe and Dembele were electrifying and astutely combined for Dembele’s winning goal.
Last weekend, England needed an injury-time goal to grind out a 2-2 draw at a mediocre Scotland side in a World Cup qualifier.
The match against France failed to give much cause for optimism.
“We just weren’t good enough,” Kane said.