What a difference a year makes.
During the summer of 2018, the nation was united behind Gareth Southgate’s England team. There was a clear vision, a visible style, and a belief shared by the players and the supporters.
Yet heading into Sunday’s Nations League third-place play-off match against Switzerland, there is none of that.
The defeat to Holland on Thursday evening wasn’t pretty viewing. The Three Lions lacked identity. They created very little and were opened up with relative ease against a side containing a 32-year-old Ryan Babel in attack.
Defensive lapses cost England a place in the final. John Stones and Harry Maguire ceded possession time and time again, although the lack of options ahead of them were partly to blame. It all highlighted flaws to Southgate as a manager that fans hadn’t been privy to before.
Loyalty to players is what builds a good relationship. And that relationship between manager and players is what fuelled the run in Russia. But then there needs to come a time that sees form count for more.
For example, Stones had only completed 90 minutes on just two occasions since the start of April yet started in Portugal. The Manchester City defender didn’t head into the game in good form yet was chosen to start up against a Memphis Depay with a point to prove.
The 25-year-old appeared rusty. He was sloppy in possession and it ultimately cost England the victory with his mistake in extra-time.
Southgate had options, too. Michael Keane was on the bench and though not as confident on the ball, the Everton centre-back went into the game on the back of good form for the Toffees.
Accompanying Keane on the bench was Joe Gomez. The Liverpool defender didn’t play regularly for the Reds during the second half of the season due to a leg fracture suffered in December. Admittedly, he wouldn’t have been 100 per cent fit.
Yet neither was Stones. So why not select Gomez, who was one of the Premier League’s standout defenders prior to his injury and is also less error-prone than the Manchester City star?
Stones wasn’t the only questionable inclusion for the Three Lions, though. Granted, the England manager opted to start all of those involved in the Champions League final on the bench, something counterpart Ronald Koeman didn’t do.
🤦♂️ what has John Stones done! pic.twitter.com/8LbfpLcOJQ
— Football Whispers (@FB_WHISPERS) June 6, 2019
Both youngsters, who will represent the Under-21s at this summer’s European Championships, had seasons to remember in the Premier League and could have made an impact against this Dutch side.
He didn’t pick them, however, and it resulted in England starting the game with an out of sorts Kyle Walker at right-back and a midfield three of Ross Barkley, Fabian Delph and Declan Rice.
The latter is many things but a ball-player he is not, with West Ham building their play through Mark Noble. That decision alone handicapped England’s ability to play out from the back, as did the decision not to play the 3-4-3 system the likes of Stones and Maguire impressed in during the World Cup.
The shape gave the centre-backs passing options. It also gave them an added layer of security which seemed to suit Stones and Maguire.
Yet that was stripped away, with Southgate opting to play 4-3-3. England had to go long far more often than they would have liked.
It was their reluctance to go long, and play a style Southgate wanted despite not having the personnel available, that gave Holland the encouragement they needed to press higher up the pitch. It was ultimately their downfall with two for the three goals coming from mistakes in the defensive third.
But questions will linger over why he didn’t react during the game when it was apparent his tactics weren’t working, and why he refused to include the in-form players. It all felt a little familiar in Portugal, with previous managers unable to answer the exact questions being asked of the 48-year-old.
The end of the Nations League needs to coincide with Southgate ushering in a new era for English football. With Alexander-Arnold, Maddison, Wan-Bissaka and Harry Winks all part of the first-team discussion.