There was very little to savour in England’s 2-0 victory over Ukraine on Sunday. The result will have satisfied Three Lions supporters, but the manner in which it was earned was stodgy and uninspiring. Some moments of inspiration managed to cut through the slime though. Bukayo Saka added another scintillating display to his growing England portfolio. Harry Kane extended his record scoring total for the national team. There was also a full international debut for a man England fans have longed to see; James Maddison.
The Leicester City schemer lived up the billing, providing many of England’s more enticing moments during a tepid afternoon at Wembley. A fizzing free kick would have teed up Kane had the Tottenham Hotspur forward not strayed offside. A cheeky slalom dumped Taras Stepanenko onto his backside, much to the delight of the home crowd. It was an enterprising and exciting display from a player woefully underserved with England caps.
Maddison’s role in brightening up a dreary display should put him at the front of manager Gareth Southgate’s thoughts. But a cursory glance at the coach’s England regime so far suggests it won’t. Southgate has been a brilliant custodian of the national team, leading them further than any manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. But he has done so by being an arch pragmatist, viewing creative, free-wheeling talents with suspicion.
Southgate is yet to fully bed in a primarily-creative talent during his England tenure. The likes of Phil Foden and Jack Grealish have enjoyed moments in the sun but have never become part of the fabric of the side. Jude Bellingham has creative aspects to his game but he is largely a box-to-box all-rounder. Saka has dynamism but is more of a forward. Even Grealish had to toil for years before finally getting a real opportunity.
Some of this is part of Southgate’s broader “country as club” management style. Journalist Daniel Storey pointed out on Twitter that none of the last 13 England debutants have exceeded the eight-cap mark. The same thread goes on to point out that the onset of the Nations League, deliberately conceived to eliminate “meaningless” friendlies, has blunted the impact of new faces. With the majority of games now taking place in competitions against which Southgate and his side will be judged, there is less chance to experiment. This reality leads to pragmatism, where excess bravery can lead to humbling defeat.
The counter-argument here is that a surfeit of bravery did not prevent a six-game winless run in the last Nations League campaign. Could some more adventure in the middle of the park have prevented a series of zero and one-point acquisitions that began to resemble binary code? It wouldn’t have hurt to try.
The same could be said of last week’s 2-1 win over Italy. A fine result and an exceptional first-half performance. But the second half saw a reactive midfielder trio of Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and Jude Bellingham largely outfoxed by the Euro 2020 winners. England held on, but would a Maddison-type have given Italy more to think about down the stretch?
Southgate is unlikely to change now. The likes of Maddison are likely to remain a scarcely-glimpsed luxury. Southgate likes his all-rounders. Jordan Henderson will never be mistaken for Paul Gascoigne but his relentless solidity has netted him a healthy club medal haul and some near-misses with England. Bellingham is a gift for any manager and Southgate has usually made the most of him. Rice and Phillips have their place too. But the next time England are up against it like against Italy, or flattering to deceive like they did against Ukraine, perhaps Southgate could find a place for a player like Maddison too.
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