England were relentlessly excellent against Scotland - now they have to win a major trophy
Gareth Southgate’s England were outstanding at Hampden Park, and their win serves as a reminder of why a team this good simply has to win some silverware.
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Before the game, there was the Hampden Roar, almost drowned out by one of the fiercest choruses of booing in the history of the British game. Afterwards, near silence - just the pitter-patter of plastic seats swinging back to their resting place and the mournful strains of Chvrches’ eery The Mother We Share as thousands of Scots quietly filed out into the Glasgow night.
The mother of the song “will never keep your proud head from falling”, and certainly Scottish pride shouldn’t be dented too much despite England’s comfortable victory. This was Steve Clarke’s first defeat in 11, and his side still hold the current continental record for the longest unbeaten streak in competitive matches. They are well on course to qualify for a second consecutive European Championship and can fairly claim to be the best side to represent Scotland for a generation or four. Sadly for their fans, the defeat served as a reminder that they are still some way behind the very best.
And England’s win was a reminder that they are among the very best in the world. The 3-1 scoreline was a product of relentless, smothering excellence which permitted the home side just a few second-half minutes of hope before the crushing inevitability of the result took hold again. If England had been this effective at beating Scotland in the past, Mel Gibson would never have had the source material for Braveheart.
In any rational world, this would be a result which silenced Gareth Southgate’s inexplicably large number of doubters for a little while, but of course there will still be naysayers who try to find flaws in all-but faultless display. Those who have taken against Southgate’s management have mostly dug their trenches too deep to change their minds. Some may even use the phrase “only Scotland”, as though Berti Vogts was still sat in the dugout, but this was a hugely imposing win in a hostile atmosphere against a strong side with their collective dander up.
It was a collective win, of course, one in which almost everyone played their role as expected, but Jude Bellingham will receive the Three Lions’ share of the plaudits. After a subdued game against Ukraine on Saturday, he came roaring back into his Real Madrid form – although ‘roaring’ implies a degree of emotion and personal ferocity which doesn’t appear to be in his game.
Take his goal, England’s second. When most players find the ball falling to their unmarked feet bang in front of goal, slow-motion replays will show the moment their eyes light up and widen as they realise the enormity of the opportunity that has opened up for them – Bellingham didn’t so much as flinch. He put the ball away in the clinical, dead-eyed style of a shark taking down a seal pup. He unfurled his trademark arms-wide celebration with cold and absolute confidence. He knows how damned good he is.
Not that he’s alone in being both damned good and thrillingly young. Phil Foden, still just 23, was excellent as well, putting a bad early miss behind him to deftly and very intentionally divert Kyle Walker’s fierce cross past Angus Gunn. Like Bellingham, he seemed to be everywhere in the final third, hassling and harrying Scotland’s beleaguered defence and chiselling openings out of a backline which other teams had found to be made out of solid Grampian granite. Bukayo Saka, who turned 22 last week, was barely needed in Glasgow but has been voted England’s player of the year twice in a row. England have the most exciting roster of attacking talent in world football and with a fair wind can expect to be this good for another five years or more.
Elsewhere on the field, Marc Guéhi had another solid game which strengthened his own burgeoning reputation, the much-maligned selection of Kalvin Phillips resulted in an energetic and efficient performance, and debutant Lewis Dunk was mostly solid enough, although he was responsible for missing the late run which allowed John McGinn a free header and Scotland’s only meaningful chance of the match. Eberechi Eze came on for his second cap and should have scored when worked clean through on Gunn’s goal, but still offered plenty of tricky running and put the Scottish defence into a couple of awkward positions. The depth of talent ahead of him in the side makes it hard for Eze to make much of a claim to a starting space, but if he is to remain a depth piece then he’s a pretty damned decent one.
Honestly, even poor old Harry Maguire didn’t do much wrong. It’s unclear why he came on for Guéhi in the first place – maybe the Crystal Palace man had a knock, or perhaps Southgate just wanted the former Manchester United captain to get some minutes in his boots – but he seems cursed to have bad things happen to him, and the cruelly unfortunate own-goal that skewed off his boot and past a stranded Aaron Ramsdale would never have happened to anyone else on the field. Maguire has become a lightning rod for misfortune.
As for Scotland, this was a rare instance of a fine team being overwhelmed and outplayed across the pitch. The same team that dispatched Spain in such impressive style a few months ago were left chasing shadows, but that should be seen as more of a testament to England’s quality that to any grand failing of Clarke or his players. Sure, the usually superb Andrew Robertson gaffed badly for Bellingham’s goal, and granted that Scott McTominay regressed into his Old Trafford persona, and it’s true that the midfield never got the slightest toehold in the game – but these are demonstrably rare occurrences now.
The evidence, admittedly, suggests that Scotland probably aren’t good enough to make a serious run at Euro 2024, and that there are limits to their recent excellence. For all that they have improved beyond recognition in the past few years, the gulf between them and England was demonstrably wide - but they have already proven that they have it in them to give some very good teams some major headaches and have had quite a few international managers reaching for the ibuprofen. Keep playing the way they are, and the Hampden faithful will hear Yes Sir, I Can Boogie more often than Chvrches as they make for their post-match pints.
Last night, however, belonged to England, and underscored the truth that every Englishman already knows - this team simply has to win something. On a night which celebrated 150 years of rivalry, the weight of history settled a little more heavily onto Southgate’s shoulders, and the expectation that the Three Lions finally end all those interminable years of hurt is becoming greater than ever.