After an emphatic 6-2 win against Iran gave the nation hopes of cruising through the World Cup group stages, a goalless draw against USA on Friday provided a reality check to bring everybody back down to Earth.
To their credit, USA were fantastic. In their opening game they gradually tired and ended up drawing 1-1 with Wales, but against England they stayed strong, kept their shape and through the midfield trio of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and 19-year-old starlet Yunus Musah, dominated the centre of the park.
Now one thing to know is that whenever England play in a major tournament rational reactions tend to fly out the window. England are either the best team in the history of world football, it’s coming home and we can all start celebrating or it’s doom and gloom, the players aren’t good enough, the manager is some form of garden vegetable and everything is a disaster. So failure to beat USA – continuing a run of having never beaten the Americans in a World Cup game – was never going to be received well.
Former Manchester United captain-turned-straight-talking pundit Roy Keane called it a ‘terrible performance.’ Reporters called England ‘stodgy’ like ‘cold footballing custard’.
And fans on Twitter fumed, as fans on Twitter tend to do. The decision not to start Phil Foden drew most England supporters’ ire. Reaction to Gareth Southgate’s selection ranged from calling it ‘indefensible’ to the extreme, a Daily Mail headline screaming: “Does Gareth Southgate have a PROBLEM with Phil Foden?” – as if the newspaper were a 15-year-old girl spreading gossip about two classmates.
Foden’s last start for England at a major tournament, funnily enough, was in another 0-0 draw in a second group stage game – against Scotland at Euro 2020.
Like then, England won their first game in style, beating World Cup finalists Croatia. Like then, a 0-0 draw against an old rival followed. And, like then, England were booed off the pitch before everybody criticised Southgate for choosing the wrong player. Jack Grealish was the player everybody clamoured for on that occasion and ironically Foden was the one people wanted replaced, his performances described as ‘disappointing’.
Southgate’s decision to play a 4-3-3 for the opening two games has been a departure from his often favoured three central defender lineup, perhaps forced by injury to Kyle Walker or maybe simply a choice to be more attacking. England are blessed with a number of exciting wide forwards – Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden – all competing for places next to captain Harry Kane, the automatic indispensable striker.
Swapping Sterling or Saka for Foden would probably not have changed much against USA. The shape would have remained the same. England’s main issue was getting a grip in midfield and stretching USA’s defence in behind. USA’s centre-backs were barely tested all game and would have felt like they were enjoying a nice day out.
Stretching the play in behind was an issue because of the man upfront, Harry Kane. And while much talk has focused on Phil Foden, it is Kane’s performance that went unnoticed and without scrutiny.
Harry Kane is supposed to be England’s leading light, captain and best player but he has not looked himself this tournament.
He has not registered a single shot on target in Qatar so far. He has only touched the ball four times in the penalty area in England’s two games. And he has only managed two shots in total – despite being England’s central striker in a 6-2 win.
Kane is three goals away from becoming England’s all-time record goalscorer, with 51 goals in 77 appearances. Two more goals and he will equal Wayne Rooney’s record. He picked up an ankle injury against Iran but chose to play on – a decision another TV pundit, Graeme Souness, called ‘selfish’. Kane has has ankle injuries in the past, and did not look like he could run properly against USA.
For around two years now, those paying attention will have noticed that Kane, despite remaining an excellent striker, has lost a yard of pace. The Tottenham Hotspur forward is 29 now and has lost his ability to press aggressively from the front – a criticism often levelled at 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in England but rarely mentioned when it comes to England’s golden boy.
Kane lacks pace and prefers to operate as a more withdrawn forward nowadays, dropping into midfield and spraying passes forward before running into the box to get on the end of them. His distribution from deep areas is brilliant, NFL quarterback-like, and we see this partnership often at Spurs where he combines to assist Heung-min Son.
This constant desire to drop deep can cause problems though, and this was the case against USA. As you can see, Kane’s average position on Friday (9) was more like a defensive midfielder, behind even Mason Mount (19). In fact Kane dropped so deep in this game he touched the ball more times in England’s own penalty area than USA’s!
The effect of this is it makes it very easy for teams like USA to defend their own penalty area.
While Kane recovers from his ankle problem, England have to consider: is playing Mason Mount, Kane and two central midfielders really necessary?
While an effective, hard-working player, Mount does not run in behind effectively in the same way as Son for Spurs. Mount, Kane, Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham all hang around the centre of midfield.
For games against compact sides like USA or Wales in their final group game, England need someone who can stay upfront as a focal point for Saka and Sterling (or Foden) to play off, and stretch the play with pace and runs in behind. Marcus Rashford and Callum Wilson are the likely options for that, and it could be good to see one or both against Wales.
As for Kane, the striker has never won a trophy in his long career thus far. For as long as this continues there will be questions about his true position among the pantheon of great strikers. He needs a good World Cup – and a trophy – to cement his legacy.
Kylian Mbappe has stepped up. Robert Lewandowski is scoring. Lionel Messi is on song. Even Enner Valencia is on fire. For Kane to be considered a truly great striker, he has to show it on the world stage. Starting against Wales.