Well there it is. England are relegated to the second tier of the Nations League with a game to spare after a 1-0 defeat in Italy that tended strongly toward the dreary. There’s one more game before Qatar and an awful, awful lot to put right.
There aren’t many bright spots here. Bellingham was quite good. Dier was perfectly decent. Ah, you’ve already stopped reading, haven’t you? Fair play.
Smart early save from Raspadori before the offside flag went up But He Wasn’t To Know That. Then had his wits entirely about him for a save that did count to deny Scamacca at the back post after England’s entire defence went MIA. A miscued clearance that briefly raised fears of an Italy chance followed soon after by a hoof that gave the ball straight back to the hosts were not exactly ringing endorsements of the work Pope has apparently been doing on his distribution. Made a couple more decent saves in the second half, generally commanded his area well and could do nothing about the goal. But while plenty had worse games for England tonight, and England in general have far greater concerns than an entirely adequate back-up goalkeeper, there was also a sense that Pope showed he can do the things we all know he can do but did little to suggest his weaknesses have improved all that much.
Early error as England’s back three struggled to get its bearings but that was nothing compared to the goings-on that led to Italy’s opening goal which will reopen debates about whether or not Walker is or should be a centre-back. Got his initial position wrong as a long ball sailed over his head for Raspadori and then allowed the Italian space to turn and shoot without ever getting close to him. It was a high-class finish, but Walker could have done no more than he did to help Raspadori on his way. Almost immediately substituted as England switched to a back four in desperate pursuit of a relegation-delaying equaliser.
Didn’t look like the player returning to England’s team after 20 months away from it, and by far the most composed member of Southgate’s defence. That’s faint praise, mind. Did make a couple of vital interventions including a very decent and important clearance early in the second half. Having played his way back into the reckoning over the last year, he certainly did nothing here to play himself back out of it.
Slightly iffy start for the most high-profile if obvious inclusion from Southgate, relieved to see offside flag go up after stepping out unconvincingly if ultimately correctly as Raspadori bore down on Pope’s goal. Settled down after that and produced the performance that basically nobody wanted: adequacy. It wasn’t a barnstorming critic-answering powerhouse leader of a display from Maguire, but it was by no means a disaster either. We know Southgate desperately wants him there in that defence and we also know why that’s the case. Southgate will have seen nothing here really to make him swerve from that plan and that’s probably fair enough.
Not at his best, and in the most competitive position on the field for England you don’t want to be sub-par to often. England just couldn’t ever really get their wide players involved in an attacking sense, but James had the added problem tonight of failing to deliver from set-pieces. His corners weren’t great and he completely butchered one very presentable free-kick shooting opportunity. Given this team has now seemingly become entirely reliant on set-pieces for any hope of goals they can’t really afford to be squandered so carelessly.
His worst England game for quite some time. Italy seemed to find it far too easy to play through England’s midfield in the first half and with Bellingham handed the more progressive role it was Rice who must shoulder the blame here. He’s earned the trust of Southgate and the rest of us as England’s midfield anchor but he’s not currently operating at the level of that run to the Euro 2020 final. He’s also far from alone in that regard.
Paid the ultimate compliment of being the man Italy had correctly decided must be booted up in the air whenever he got possession. Highlighted why with the first bit of genuinely impressive progressive football from England midway through the first half when releasing James down the right. Faded slightly in the second half and headed a presentable late chance over the bar, but certainly a performance that qualifies for Rare Bright Spot status. Has to play all the games now; we hope and pray he’s done enough to convince Southgate of that. We fear the flaws all around him might bring out Southgate’s cautious side. Which, let’s be fair, is never too far from the surface.
The risk of playing Saka at wing-back was highlighted when a poor touch ended an England attack and launched an Italy one he was unable to assist in repelling, relying instead on a poor first touch from Raspadori after a cross came in from the empty acres on Italy’s right. It was a pretty unpleasant evening for England’s newly-crowned player of the year. We’ve learned that he isn’t really a left wing-back and probably shouldn’t play there. This is probably information we could have worked out without having to sit through 70 minutes of it, though.
The sort of performance his critics would have you believe has been all he’s ever done in an England shirt. England’s left-hand side looked wobbly all night and Sterling never quite seemed to take up the positions that most benefit him or the team. Often to be found too deep, far too often to be found playing with his back to goal, and generally struggling to get and remain involved in proceedings. Frustrating and frustrated, and the stats are honking. Zero shots, zero key passes, dispossessed four times, miscontrolled four times.
Like Sterling, seemed to suffer from ending up in a positional no-man’s land in which he was neither a midfielder nor attacker and unable to get on the ball in the areas where he is so dangerous. The question we must ask is how much this was by design and how much accident? England’s front three rarely knitted together effectively in a toothless, ponderous and disjointed attacking performance.
Visibly frustrated before he got a painful whack in the mouth and positively fuming from then on. Got merked by Donnarumma, who he then forced into a double save with two well-struck shots that nevertheless both came from an angle that favoured the keeper. They were the only two of his five efforts that hit the target, with the others being pretty speculative. Made three clearances – the same number as both Dier and Maguire – which sort of sums up the kind of night he had to endure. That England goals record isn’t going to break itself, Harry.
JACK GREALiSH (for Saka, 71)
Briefly hinted at something better as Southgate responded to the Italy goal by bringing on Grealish and Shaw for Saka and Walker and going to a 4-2-3-1. Hard to know whether the improvement in England’s shape and fluency in the immediate aftermath of that change was down more to England or to Italy sitting back with the 1-0 lead in their pocket. It soon fizzled out, though, with Grealish’s mounting frustration at getting constantly booted up in the air eventually earning him an injury-time caution that rules him out of the Germany game.
LUKE SHAW (for Walker, 71)
Remember when he scored that goal at Wembley last July? Remember how alive you felt with the possibilities of it all as England launched that thrilling third-minute counter attack to go 1-0 up in a major final? Great wasn’t it? An awful lot has gone awfully wrong since then. Shaw was fine tonight, though. Well done him.