It was a night when Gareth Southgate desperately needed a mood-changer, something to restore England’s belief, to shrug off the suffocating narratives that have begun to undermine the team – at exactly the wrong time, with the World Cup on the horizon.
Everybody remembers the 4-0 loss to Hungary at Molineux in June, the ugliest blot on the uninspiring four-game start to this Nations League campaign. And the away defeat to them – together with the draws against Germany and Italy. And yet there would only be more frustration here at San Siro, more dead-ends, the absence of creative inspiration.
Italy were deserved winners, condemning England to relegation to the second tier of this competition, the decisive moment coming when the fast rising star, Giacomo Raspadori, killed a high ball and felt Kyle Walker give him too much room before wrapping his right boot around a delicious curler that flew into the far corner. The Napoli striker only made his Italy debut in June. Already, he has four goals.
There were far greater worries than the demotion for England, with the soul-searching set to run long – certainly until the visit of Germany to Wembley on Monday. It is no wins in five now, only one goal scored and that a Harry Kane penalty. The flatness, the lack of direction is casting dark shadows and, when Southgate applauded the travelling fans at the end, they responded with boos – the soundtrack to their last encounter with him at Molineux.
Italy took their cue from a stirring rendition of their national anthem delivered by an opera singer, the players swaying to and fro, arms around each other. They snapped into tackles, pressuring England high up and getting some dangerous balls up the channels or across from the flanks. When Federico Dimarco dropped one to the far post, Gianluca Scamacca’s header from a tight angle was clawed away by Nick Pope.
England had not beaten Italy away since 1961; Southgate brought it up in his press briefing on Thursday night. It was a challenge and his team thrived on overcoming them, he said. It also felt like a call for perspective. Italy might not have qualified again for the World Cup but, lads, it’s Italy.
This Italy are a work in progress; not a team to terrify, despite it boasting the pedigree of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci and Jorginho. The swathes of empty seats inside the stadium highlighted local indifference and, also, the on-going nightmare that is the nation’s absence from Qatar.
England struggled throughout the first half. They were jittery, their passing loose, plenty of their touches heavy. Pope’s distribution did not inspire confidence and it felt like a risky business going back to him but he was hardly alone in treating the ball like a hot coal. Phil Foden, playing off the right, was a rare comfort in possession.
Italy looked set for joy up the sides and there was a let-off when Raspadori fluffed his touch following a cut-back from the right. The home team tried to target the space behind Bukayo Saka at left wing-back.
Southgate had wanted to be progressive, despite the reversion to a back three. Hence the selections of Reece James at right wing-back and Saka, plus Jude Bellingham in midfield. Saka feels firmly in front of Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell. Yet it was difficult to work out Southgate’s attacking plan before the interval.
There was no one moment when England truly stretched Italy, when they got in behind them. Bellingham released James on 23 minutes (at last, some space) but the low cross was poor while Kane ran on to another Bellingham pass but his shot was easily blocked. Kane also lashed high on a rare break with little on.
The second half had to be better. Surely, it would be, right? England needed to loosen the shackles, to push higher, to show greater urgency. Raheem Sterling had laboured sorely in the first half but there was a dash from him and the buying of a free-kick off Bonucci on the edge of the area. James lifted his effort wastefully over.
Kane stirred, robbing Rafael Toloi and barrelling away before Bonucci got across to block. The England captain would see stars after a clash of heads with Toloi but he would pop up again on the right, drilling over a low cross, which Toloi had to turn behind. It remained pretty thin gruel.
Italy had threatened, Scamacca almost playing in Nicolo Barella only for an offside flag to go up. A Giovanni Di Lorenzo backheel nearly opened up England’s defence. And then Raspadori mined the gold, his strike an absolute beauty.
Southgate introduced Shaw and Jack Grealish for Walker and Saka, switching to 4-2-3-1, Sterling as the No 10. Kane worked Donnarumma from a tight angle but the equaliser did not look on. Italy, indeed, might have scored again, the substitute, Manolo Gabbiadini, being denied one-on-one by Pope and Dimarco flashing a cross-cum-shot against the far post.