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England Won but Needs to Learn How to Keep Control

SportEngland Won but Needs to Learn How to Keep Control

Jude Bellingham wasn’t having it. He wasn’t having Serbia forcing their way back into this match and, once it was over, he wasn’t having anyone rain on his or England’s parade.

It was put to him in the post-match news conference that while the first half against Serbia had shown why England are among the favourites to win Euro 2024, the second half had shown the shortcomings that might ultimately be their undoing.

“I don’t really agree with that,” said the 20-year-old, England’s goalscorer in their 1-0 victory in Gelsenkirchen. “The first half shows why we can score goals against any team and the second half shows why we can keep a clean sheet against any team.”

Bellingham said there was “always a negative theme” in terms of public and media reaction to England’s performances — “and sometimes rightly so” — but he preferred to accentuate the positive.

They had to “hold on at times and suffer a little bit” in the second half at the Veltins-Arena, he said, but they had won the game. And “this team is still new”, he added, “gelling together with every game”.

He made some good points. Not so much those about what England had proved by beating Serbia, but certainly those about this being a new squad and about the desperation in some quarters to criticise performances and, in particular, manager Gareth Southgate at every opportunity.

(Christopher Lee – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

It was impressive to see such a young player talking in such forthright terms, determined to challenge and reshape the narrative around his team. He wasn’t going to shrug his shoulders and let journalists talk down his team’s prospects.

But it wasn’t as convincing as his typically assertive performance on the pitch. England played well for half an hour, taking the lead when Bellingham charged into the penalty area and finished off an excellent move with a bullet header from Bukayo Saka’s cross, but their early momentum faded and was never recovered. The second-half performance was passive; Serbia substitute Dusan Tadic said England had “offered themselves to us”.

All of this would be far easier to gloss over if it didn’t seem symptomatic of a long-term trend. There are so many things Southgate has changed for the better over the past seven-and-a-half years, but there are still so many occasions when, having taken charge of a game, his team gradually lose the initiative, retreat and find themselves clinging on unconvincingly.

It happened against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, away to Spain in the Nations League later that year, Italy in the Euro 2020 final, Italy again in a Euro 2024 qualifier in Naples last year. England still managed to hold on to win two of those games, but not the two that mattered most when the stakes were highest.

(Michael Regan – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

How far do you want to go back? European Championship eliminations at the hands of Iceland in 2016 and Italy in 2012. It happened against the U.S. in their opening game of the 2010 World Cup. It was the theme of their World Cup campaign in Germany in 2006 when they ended up hanging on for a stodgy win over Paraguay in their opening game and had a similar experience against Ecuador in the round of 16 before succumbing to Portugal in the quarter-final here in Gelsenkirchen.



England’s 58 years of hurt – by the players who lived it

There is a technical issue in terms of the type of midfielders England have had, but it also seems to be part of the national team’s psyche. England lost quarter-finals from winning positions against Portugal at Euro 2004 and Brazil in 2002. First half good, second half not so good — as their then-coach Sven-Goran Eriksson used to say.

England had three shots in the first half-hour last night and then just two (a long-distance effort from Trent Alexander-Arnold and a Harry Kane header that was pushed onto the crossbar) for the rest of the game. They had 71 per cent possession for the first half-hour but then just 44 per cent for the rest of the game. The drop-off wasn’t quite as stark as that qualifying game in Naples last year (when England completed 233 passes in the first half and only 96 in the second), but it was still troubling.

The balance of the midfield was encouraging for the first 30 minutes, with Bellingham the dominant figure all over the pitch, Alexander-Arnold looking short and long with his passing and Declan Rice always moving, always doing the simple things well, always on the scene quickly whenever possession was lost.

But Alexander-Arnold’s influence faded. So did that of Saka, after an excellent first half, and Phil Foden, who was quieter throughout. The balance of the left-hand side, with Kieran Trippier filling in at left-back while Luke Shaw tries to build up his fitness, wasn’t right, but the issues went beyond that. Southgate put it down to a loss of energy among his team — “and that didn’t surprise me,” he said, “because of the lack of 90 minutes that a lot of the players have had recently.”

A team’s opening game of a tournament can often be like that. Being quick out of the blocks matters far less than building momentum as the tournament goes on.

England have done that well under Southgate. The last European Championship, when they looked rather laboured against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic in the group stage before beating Germany, Ukraine and Denmark en route to that fateful final against Italy, was a case in point.

(Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

That is why Bellingham and his team-mates were entitled to enjoy their victory here. “You look across the past few tournaments we’ve had and it’s always crucial to get the first win,” Trippier said afterwards. “It gives us great momentum and belief. It shows the character of the boys. We’ve learned a lot today, but the most important thing is the three points.”

Everyone who spoke afterwards — Southgate, Bellingham, Trippier, Alexander-Arnold, Rice, Kane — mentioned the character and resilience England had shown in the second half. When the pressure was on, they defended well. Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Trippier and Rice all made important interventions, but perhaps the most pleasing performance was that of Marc Guehi, the Crystal Palace centre-back who justified his selection.

Rice called it “a game of two halves” but said that “in the end, I thought it was comfortable”. “We have built this team off clean sheets,” he said. “At the last Euros, we had five out of seven games. We have real defensive solidity and it is about doing it on the night. To win that game tonight was a really good start for us. We just have to use the ball a bit better in the second half when it starts to get tough.”

That always seems to be the big issue for England: retaining control of games rather than allowing initiative and momentum to be lost. Rice spoke about it as if it was something that will be rectified on the training ground over the next few days before they face Denmark in Frankfurt on Thursday.

But sometimes it feels like something in England’s DNA. It is something Southgate and his players, for all the national team’s undoubted progress of recent years, still have to overcome. At least, having started their campaign with a win, they can seek to address it from a position of strength.

(Top photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)


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