AL KHOR, Qatar – It’s becoming a recurring nightmare for England. Luc Modric in 2018, Marco Veratti in the final of Euro 2020 and now Antoine Griezmann. Players who can lead the pace of play with the ball at their feet knock the Three Lions out of major tournaments with depressing regularity.
This time, Gareth Southgate’s side have at least mustered their spirits to return in their World Cup quarter-final against Blues after falling one goal behind. Against Croatia at Russia 2018 and Italy at Euro 2020, England had the lead and the momentum and lost both, with Modric dictating the game for Croatia in the semi-finals in Moscow and Verratti assisting the Italy turned the tide at Wembley about a year and a half ago. .
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But at Al Bayt, despite the equalizer of Tchouameni’s first game by a Harry Kane penalty, England could never find a solution to the problem that kept being posed by Griezmann.
Before the game all talk was about how England would end Kylian Mbappe, the five-goal leader in the race for the Golden Boot, but Mbappe is all about flashes of pace and brilliance. Griezmann is the one who sets the tempo, and England have allowed him to occupy the pocket between midfield and attack far too often.
It was the Atletico Madrid midfielder’s precise cross from the left that created Giroud’s header in the 78th minute to make it 2-1, and it proved to be the decisive blow. Kane’s missed penalty, which he skied over the crossbar, would have brought England level, but it would have summed up his team’s laborious approach had they extended the game behind the back on two shoot to the net.
From open play, it was the same old England: slow, side passes, predictable movements, crosses into the penalty area. Yes, they tried, but teams that have such a basic game plan only go so far in major tournaments, so England are back – getting ready to go home.
There are two ways to change ahead of Euro 2024 and the World Cup two years later. First, a player emerges who is so obviously England’s playmaker that he is brought into the team, or two, the management philosophy changes – either Southgate’s or his successor’s, if the former decides to step down after six years in the job – and one player is lucky enough to be the Three Lions’ Griezmann.
Phil Foden could play the role. The Manchester City player enjoyed a good World Cup, providing a powerful attacking threat in most games, but against France he was wasted on the left wing.
If Southgate had been bold enough to put Foden in the pocket between Kane and midfield, perhaps playing without Jordan Henderson than the handbrake alongside Declan Rice, the 22-year-old could have hurt France the same way Griezmann hurt England. Pep Guardiola has sometimes given Foden the freedom to play that role for City, but at the Etihad he is surrounded by better technical players in a team that dominates the ball, so doing it for England would be a different challenge.
Foden is England’s future, however, alongside the 19-year-old Jude Bellingham. The problem with England, however, is that the future never comes. The present is what matters. They can’t keep throwing the ball until the next tournament, two years later.
If Foden isn’t the answer, then maybe James Madison should now have the chance to play as England’s No.10. The Leicester City midfielder was called up from the international desert by Southgate to be named in England’s 26-man squad, but an injury on arrival in Qatar set Maddison back and he didn’t get a kick during the tournament.
However, having only been capped once by Southgate, it feels like the manager isn’t entirely sold on Maddison. The same could be said of Jack Greish, who was only a sporadic substitute during this World Cup. They both have their flaws, but so does Griezmann, but France manager Didier Deschamps prefers to accentuate the positives with the former Barcelona player.
Southgate too often falls back on the safer option; did he really need Henderson as well as Rice and Bellingham against Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot? It’s all about preference, and Southgate’s instincts tend to be risk averse rather than fortune favoring the brave.
Still, if Kane had scored his second penalty to extend the game, who knows how it would have turned out? England could have won the match and booked a semi-final against Morocco, in which they would have been the big favourites.
But lacking flair and creativity in the center of the pitch, England once again found themselves falling behind. They are caught in a vicious circle, so they go to Euro 2024, with the same questions being asked of them.