It is the type of realism England fans do not want to hear but Gareth Southgate made the case regardless, accepting that Friday night’s performance in the 0-0 draw with Scotland was substandard but doing his best to provide context, mitigation or, whisper it, excuses.
What the manager wanted to get across was the near-uniqueness of the game – a full-blooded derby at a major tournament – and how the pressure of it, including that from an impatient Wembley crowd, was always going to sap a relatively inexperienced starting XI. England’s lineup included six players playing at their first finals; it was inevitably going to weigh heavier on them than Scotland.
“It was a hugely emotional game,” Southgate said. “A very skiddy surface … a very, very quick and frantic game, at times, so a tough physical test, too. A game like that is hugely challenging. It’s the emotional energy as much as the physical energy that takes it out of you. And the longer it goes without a goal …
“I’ve played in nights like that where there’s more tension and sometimes the simple things become hard. We didn’t collapse like that, we didn’t start to look a mess with the ball. We just weren’t able to find the solutions to break them down.”
Southgate seemed happy to accept the 0-0 in the closing stages, when his team offered nothing as an attacking force. To him, it was simply not worth the risk of being caught by a neat and well-drilled Scotland who grew in confidence as the minutes ticked by. The consequences of that would have been grave on morale and the practicalities of qualification. As it is, England are set fair to advance with four points, having beaten Croatia 1-0 last Sunday. Pragmatism had become everything, even if it became a stick with which to beat Southgate (again).
“It was important that we didn’t lose the game in the last 15 minutes,” he said. “You know the crowd are urging you to go forward and abandon any sort of shape but you can get caught out doing that. In the context of the game and the group that would have been potentially costly.
“This is a relatively inexperienced squad – I think the third-least caps in the tournament – and it was a young team, so a different experience for a lot of them. They’ve just about survived it.”
It had been a tough watch and Southgate was a tough listen. He appeared to accept before the Euros that a semi-final place was the minimum requirement and plenty of his players have said that. In the post-Scotland introspection, that seemed a long way away. “Some teams are at a different point in their development,” he said. “The run Italy have had – 29 games unbeaten – and we know what France and Portugal have done over the last few years. Belgium have been the No 1 team for four years. So that’s the standard we’ve got to aspire to. We’re a work in progress.”
The example of Italy was a jarring one given they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and have since rebuilt, with Southgate seeming to imply they have done so at such a rate as to take them beyond what he has shaped with England. The suspicion remains that he and the Football Association see next year’s Qatar World Cup as the time when this squad will peak, although there comes a point when all of the planning has to yield results in the here and now.
Southgate has made it clear the ability to improvise will be key to this tournament and he could be pleased with another clean sheet, having once again picked a back four that had never played together.
The problems were further forward, with Harry Kane’s sluggishness the greatest worry. As against Croatia, the captain did not appear to be moving easily and the question as to whether he is fit feels legitimate. Southgate was asked and he rather skirted around it.
Kane was substituted on 82 minutes against Croatia. This time his number went up after 74. “It’s always difficult when it is your captain because he’s a player we’ve never had to take off in the past and at the club you leave him on in any circumstance,” Southgate said.
Kane’s connections with those around him have been out of sync and Southgate once again lamented how his other attacking starters – Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling – had missed the warmup games against Austria and Romania after their involvement in the Champions League final. “The chemistry is something we didn’t have a lot of opportunity to work on,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep working on it.”
Southgate pulled his punches when discussing the Wembley crowd, as he must do. They had booed the team off at half-time against Croatia when the score was 0-0. Against Scotland they booed at half-time and full-time and it does nobody any favours. Southgate called for understanding and patience rather than entitlement.
“On a night like Friday, there’s an expectation we will play well and win and we will be through and everything in the world is rosy,” he said. “Football doesn’t work like that. These are unique occasions and I have never known England-Scotland games to be anything other than that.”
The bottom line, however, was that England struggled to cope with the occasion, which was precisely what Southgate had wanted to avoid. His players were established Premier League stars, with five of them having contested the Champions League final, and Scotland had not been to a major finals in 23 years.
For England, it was a sobering reality check. Southgate needs to find the solutions against the Czech Republic on Tuesday.