Chocolate raisins and blue Smarties: ponderous England need perspective and Phil Foden’s hyperactivity
and live on Freeview channel 276
On Friday night, Gareth Southgate simultaneously showed the requisite gumption to name a three-pronged attack and just one defensive midfielder while also clinging to enough innate conservatism to render his side ponderous, drab, and listlessly nullified. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Schrodinger’s Attacking Intent. Although actually, come to think of it, at least Schrodinger based his work on something potentially happening inside the box.
Rarely have stalemates been this stale. Were it not for Christian Pulisic rattling Jordan Pickford’s crossbar in one moment of furious spontaneity, you might have been forgiven for thinking that you were watching two colonies of pacifist sea monkeys reenact a confrontation from West Side Story. All in all, Black Friday was just a bit grey, really, and American football hasn’t been this depressing since Never Meant dropped in 1999. If even one person sits in the centre of the Venn diagram labelled ‘3AM readers’ and ‘midwest emo fanatics’, that reference will be worth it.
Of course, some perspective is required. England are still in control of their group, perching at the summit with one game to go knowing that a win over Wales will secure top spot. Last week, I wrote a piece in which I claimed that the Three Lions should have had more than enough to see off the USA on Friday evening. I stand by that wholeheartedly, but it is worth remembering that this is the only group in which all four nations are ranked in FIFA’s top 20, and that, at the time of writing, only France have managed to win both of their opening two matches in Qatar. We’ve been here before too. Just last year, England drew their second game of a major tournament - despite Scotland’s continued claims of a 0-0 victory - and still went on a pretty decent run afterwards. And by pretty decent, I mean that they reached a first major tournament final since 1966.
In that sense, Friday’s result is no catastrophe. Practically speaking, it was a perfectly fine point against a nation who are increasingly finding their footing on the world stage, and who still hold a very good chance of forcing their way into the knockout stages. But there’s no denying that perceptions have taken a battering. Any optimism accrued in last week’s ransacking of Iran has since been squandered, frittered away in a textbook exhibition of trepidation and dowdiness. Things have to be better against Wales, or England will limp into the last 16 with all the laconic gusto of a fat, ageing house cat.
And if Southgate is indeed looking to perk up his side - although, of that there can be no guarantees - then the introduction of Phil Foden feels like the most irrefutable place to start. Against the USA, Mason Mount failed to complete a single successful dribble, didn’t assist a single shot on goal, and won just 29% of his offensive duels. Everybody has bad days at the office (last week I also wrote a piece in which I described England as ‘roaring’), but at what stage does such an insipid output become indefensible when one of the finest technical talents in world football is plonked on the sidelines counting the slits in his eyebrows? If Mount is a chocolate-coated raisin, his Manchester City counterpart is a blue Smartie. And judging by Friday’s damp squib, if England are in need of anything right now, it’s a little bit of E-number-induced hyperactivity.
To be fair to Southgate, *ducks for cover*, he has suggested that Foden will have a significant role to play in the remainder of England’s World Cup campaign: “We love Phil, he is a super player,” he told ITV Sport.
“He was into the first game, we decided not to put him into the second. But he is going to play an important part in this tournament for us, there is no question about that... But we are intending to be here as long as we can. And he is a super player and we think the world of him. And he is going to play a big part.”
Foden is not just be a super player, there’s an argument to be made for him being England’s best. Here’s hoping that Southgate keeps his word, and that he starts to make some kind of amends by including him against Wales, because the prospect of the alternative, watching a sponge contest a war of attrition, is almost too much to bear.