AL KHOR, Qatar — It is becoming a recurring nightmare for England. Luka Modric in 2018, Marco Verratti in the final of Euro 2020 and now Antoine Griezmann. Players who can conduct the rhythm of the game with the ball at their feet are knocking the Three Lions out of major tournaments on a depressingly regular basis.
This time, Gareth Southgate’s team at least summoned the spirit to get back into their World Cup quarterfinal against Les Bleus after going a goal behind. Against Croatia at Russia 2018 and Italy at Euro 2020, England had the lead and the momentum and lost both, with Modric dictating the game for Croatia in the semifinal in Moscow and Verratti helping Italy turn the tide at Wembley 18 months ago.
But at Al Bayt, despite equalising Tchouameni’s opener with a Harry Kane penalty, England could never quite find a solution to the problem that kept being posed by Griezmann.
Ahead of the game, all of the talk was about how England would stop Kylian Mbappe, the five-goal leader in the race for the Golden Boot, but Mbappe is all about flashes of pace and brilliance. Griezmann is the one who sets the tempo, and England allowed him to occupy the pocket between midfield and attack far too often.
It was the Atletico Madrid midfielder’s pinpoint cross from the left that created Giroud’s 78th-minute header to make it 2-1, and that proved to be the decisive blow. Kane’s missed penalty, which he skied over the crossbar, would have hauled England level, but it would have summed up his side’s laboured approach if they had taken the game into extra-time on the back on two spot kicks.
From open play, it was the same old England: slow, sideways passes, predictable movements, crosses into the penalty area. Yes, they gave it a go, but teams who have such a basic gameplan only go so far in major tournaments, so here England are again — preparing to go home.
There are two ways it can change ahead of Euro 2024 and the World Cup two years later. One, a player emerges who is so obviously England’s playmaker that he is slotted into the team, or two. the managerial philosophy changes — either Southgate’s or his successor’s, if the former decides to step down after six years in post — and a player is given the chance to be the Three Lions’ Griezmann.
Had Southgate been bold enough to put Foden in the pocket between Kane and the midfield, perhaps playing without Jordan Henderson as the handbrake alongside Declan Rice, the 23-year-old could have hurt France in the same way that Griezmann hurt England. Pep Guardiola has given Foden the freedom to play that role at times for City, but at the Etihad, he is surrounded by better technical players in a team that dominates the ball, so doing so for England would be a different challenge.
Foden is England’s future, though, alongside the 19-year-old Jude Bellingham. The problem with England, however, is that the future never comes. The present day is what matters. They can’t keep throwing the ball forward to the next tournament, two years down the line.
If Foden isn’t the solution, then maybe James Maddison should now be given the chance to play as England’s No. 10. The Leicester City midfielder was called out of the international wilderness by Southgate to be named in England’s 26-man squad, but an injury on arrival in Qatar set Maddison back and he didn’t get a kick during the tournament.
Having been capped just once by Southgate, however, there is a sense that the manager isn’t folly sold on Maddison. The same could be said about Jack Grealish, who has been nothing more than a sporadic substitute at this World Cup. They both have their flaws, but then so too does Griezmann, yet France coach Didier Deschamps prefers to accentuate the positives with the former Barcelona player.
Southgate too often falls back on the safer option; did he realty need Henderson as well as Rice and Bellingham against Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot? It’s all about preferences, and Southgate’s instincts tend to be risk averse rather than fortune favouring the brave.
Yet had Kane scored his second penalty to take the game into extra-time, who knows how it would have played out? England could have won the game and booked a semifinal against Morocco, in which they would have been strong favourites.
But without flair and creativity in the centre of the pitch, England were found wanting yet again. They are caught in a vicious circle, so onto Euro 2024 they go, with the same questions being asked of them.