There’s no doubting the individual talent of England’s stars, but there’s a lack of purpose between them, and that was indeed the case again in a scoreless tie.
For England, it was all very familiar. After a promising start to the tournament, this was a performance far more in keeping with England in recent major tournaments. A 0–0 draw vs. its neighbor to the north, Scotland, is probably enough to secure Gareth Southgate’s side a place in the last 16 of Euro 2020, but this was a far less accomplished display than what England produced against Croatia. It was a night of torrential rain and heavy shirts, of sluggish build-up, of stodgy unimaginative football.
For Scotland, it was quite the reverse. It needs to beat Croatia to have a chance of going through, but there is no reason to fear that game after a performance of organization and intelligence. If there is a regret, it will only be that having frustrated England, it did not finish the job, despite very presentable chances falling the way of Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams in the second half. But the only song audible in the final minutes was Flower of Scotland; for the Tartan Army, only a fourth 0-0 draw in 115 meetings between the sides, made this a night to celebrate.
This is a curious rivalry. England tends to treat Scotland with a patronizing benignity: it has a population 10 times that of Scotland and, despite the devolved parliament at Holyrood, the United Kingdom is governed from Westminster. Even in football, the days when the biggest English teams were studded with Scottish players have passed. A glance at the sides suggests the gulf between them: England’s starting lineup featured six players who played in the Champions League final, Scotland’s had only one who has ever played in the last eight or beyond of the Champions League (Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson, a finalist in 2018 and winner in 2019).
For Scotland, meanwhile, this is a game that means a huge amount, as the thousands of kilted fans drinking their way around London over the past couple of days have demonstrated. In theory, only 2,800 were at Wembley Stadium, but in reality it was clearly far more than that. It does have one player at the Champions League winner, Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour (who was not used in the May triumph over Manchester City), and on his first international start, at age 20, he was exceptional, an energetic and inspirational presence.
For England, although the pace was higher, the pattern was similar to the Croatia game: early chances, followed by a period of self-doubt. John Stones, weirdly unmarked from a corner, probably should have hit the target rather than smashing a header against the post early on.
But as Scotland settled, England found it harder and harder to get behind the defensive line, resorting to harder and harder chips and throughballs. And as England lost faith, its press becoming increasingly indistinct, Scotland became more confident, and it took fine low save from Jordan Pickford to keep out a volley from Stephen O’Donnell.
England’s front three, so far, has not fired. Raheem Sterling is a frustrating player. His movement and his work rate are exceptional, and there are times when his footwork is breathtaking. But he is a player who, when not quite at his very best, has a tendency to dither or pick the wrong option. And in a high-pressure situation, with an anxious crowd, that inevitably draws the grumbles.
Harry Kane, meanwhile, does not look quite right. There is a lack of sharpness about him, which is remarkable for somebody who scored more goals and registered more assists than anybody else in the Premier League last season. His habit of dropping deep to play in runners is one of his great strengths, but it does demand teammates making those runs. That seems not to come as naturally with England as it does at Tottenham. Phil Foden, meanwhile, seems far less effective coming from the right than he does operating from the left as he does at Manchester City.
Eventually, after 63 minutes, came the substitution half the country had been calling for almost from the start, as Jack Grealish was brought on for Foden. It was a sign of England’s dearth of attacking quality that Kane was taken off 11 minutes later, replaced by Marcus Rashford. Grealish made a couple of darting runs, but nothing more.
But the issue was cohesion rather than individuals. The quality of the individual components, at least in the front half of the pitch, is not in doubt. What is still open to question is the system and structure. The positive for Southgate is a second successive clean sheet. Tournaments tend to be won less by brilliance than solidity. But if England is to progress deep in this tournament, it will have to be a lot better than that.
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