England’s meandering Euro 2020 journey is about to bring its first note of jeopardy

More than this. There must be – don’t you think?–– a little more than this. As England’s footballers exited the Wembley turf, as the tinny, triumphalist music echoed around the concrete eaves, it would have been easy to confuse the after-wash of Tuesday’s 1-0 win against the Czech Republic with so many other glazed and airless Wembley dates.

Close your eyes and this might have been another day-tripping friendly against a semi-interested Switzerland, one of those nights where the crowd bolts for the tube with 20 minutes to go, an entertainment product with the all the verve and the static of a notably undercooked Cliff Richard concert.

In this sense England’s controlled progress through the group stage of Euro 2020 does at least mirror the tournament itself. Why raise the throttle, why press the gas, when the road to this point has been nothing but a gentle downhill?

This, though, is about to change, and decisively so. That switch has now been flicked. Shit, as they say, is about to get real. Twenty-seven months on from its opening shots, Uefa’s oddly-framed summer beano will finally sharpen to a cold, hard point. Do England look ready for this?

This is the key challenge now, a sudden and violent shift in the weather. Gareth Southgate must plan for a point-of-no-return knockout fixture against the kind of high-grade major power England habitually lose to in knockout football. It will be utterly unlike anything else in the strange fever dream of the last two years.

England have been grey. England have been bloodless. But it is easy forget how free of edges this whole journey has been, a kind of Uefa quicksand into which the Gareth revolution has too readily fallen.

Qualification was an open door, kicking off in March 2019 with a 5-0 thrashing of the Czechs. England scored 37 goals in eight games and glided through 10 points clear of third-placed Kosovo (pop: 1.8 million). It is a feeling of slackness that has carried right through into the tournament itself.

Even before kick-off in the final group game England – scorers of one goal at that point – had qualified for the last 16 because some third-place stuff the night before. The only jeopardy at Wembley revolved around hotels, embassy trips and exactly how many medical splints those present would have to shove up their noses in order to follow the team into the last 16.

It is all too easy to blame Uefa for this competitive blancmange. And yet we should still blame Uefa. European football’s governing body has repeatedly expressed its outrage at the anti-competitive nature of the now-defunct Super League. Aleksander Ceferin has raged primly about the dilution of pure, high-end sport in the interest of greed.

Well, England have played 11 games to get to this point without having to face a single note of jeopardy, while broadcast rights and advert sales have been retailed with an agreeable air of certainty. Uefa will justify its overstuffed format by pointing to the romance of smaller nations having their shot. It is a positive outcome, but a misrepresentation of the reasons for this direction of travel.

The dream is of course to usher every single major Uefa power from qualifying into the final two knockout weeks, while also offering hosting rights and tournament spots to useful friends elsewhere. Hence the delayed competitive notes, and the feeling through this process of watching an action movie that is all exposition and no car chase.

England’s Declan Rice (left) and Vladimir Darida of the Czech Republic
Close your eyes and England’s final group game against the Czech Republic could have been a meaningless friendly. Photograph: Shaun Botterill – UEFA/UEFA/Getty Images

Southgate has been working in this underpowered atmosphere since the last World Cup, tempted to tinker and fret at the edges of his team, a fiddler given time to fiddle. Even the deflation in the second half against the Czechs, halfway through a tournament, was shrugged away as “managing the game”.

The challenge for England, and for every other last-16 nation, is to resist this flabbiness, to emerge from that fog match-ready, edges still sharp. How’s that working out then?

At time of writing England are ranked 22nd out of 24 nations on shots per game at these Euros. They have the equal fewest yellow cards (one). They’re 22nd out of 24 on tackles made. England have spent 48% of their game time in the “middle third” of the pitch. Energy is being conserved. But to what end?

The suggestion is England are simply marshalling their strength. But how easy is it to spark into life from a standing start? Are the players immune to these notes of doubt? Southgate remains lucid and likeable in front of the post-match cameras; although with a sense of something a little stuck in his talk of the future, with a gathering sense that a manger who was supposed to be Mr D’Arcy has turned out instead to be the fussicky curate who has a smelling salts episode when the horses bolt.

The fruits of this lukewarm progress are clear enough. As things stand selection for the knockout stage will involve picking whichever of England’s attackers are playing least badly. So many of these prized creative footballers look as if they’re trying really hard to remember something.

Harry Kane, such a romping, vital presence in the Premier League, has been wandering around these Euros looking glazed and sad, a consumptive Victorian undertaker bravely seeing out his duties. Perhaps he is distracted by transfer talk. Perhaps he is unable to find the right service. These are problems a manager solves. As for service, well, Kane won the golden boot playing for Spurs.

Elsewhere some minor act of vandalism has been committed on Phil Foden, isolated on the right and drained of joy and vim. Jadon Sancho, darling of the Bundesliga is deemed too slack to be given more than five minutes in public. Jack Grealish keeps being quietly told off when what he really needs is rocket fuel poured in his ear. Players who look alive in Europe’s top club competitions look half asleep now. This is either their fault, en masse. Or something is being taken from them. And by the way, Bukayo, maybe just nod and smile. Don’t listen too hard.

And yet there is still cause for optimism. It is still possible England can slip into hardened competitive mode on Tuesday night. The return of Harry Maguire will surely mean carrying on with the back four, in itself a relatively progressive move.

Grealish is unlikely to start against Germany: he has never faced opponents of this calibre. But he is in the tournament now. England have variation in reserve. There has been a problem on the flanks, where withdrawn full-backs are combined with inverted wingers. But perhaps playing defensively against weaker teams is good practice for playing defensively against stronger teams.

There is a degree of mitigation for idling through the gears en route to this point. But 27 months in the making England finally have a moment of Euro 2020 jeopardy, a place where the edges are finally real, and where there really is no future left to plan for.

The Guardian

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