If the introduction of Jordan Henderson with 20 minutes to go of England’s deeply disappointing goalless draw with the USA wasn’t the turning point Gareth Southgate clearly hoped it would be, it was still telling.
After watching more than an hour of his side reverting to the type so often seen over the last 16 months since the heroics of Euro 2020, the manager had seen enough. We all had.
If the opening win over Iran was about a young side embracing a freedom of expression, an opportunity to show their class, this one was almost the exact opposite, the carefree team of just five days ago suddenly and so visibly burdened once more.
While that is sometimes understandable in major tournament football where results matter far more than how you achieve them, much of that can be traced back to a midfield here that simply couldn’t take control and stamp its authority on a game that was very much there for it.
Jude Bellingham was rightly lauded for his performance in the first game of what the Three Lions hope will be a long journey in Qatar. A breath of fresh air in the middle of the park, the young Dortmund midfielder can and will be a superstar and perhaps still will be here in this tournament. But this performance, one where he was kept in check admirably by the US and failed to ever really show his true quality, was a reminder he remains still a teenager, one who only made his debut on this grandest stage just a game ago.
Declan Rice alongside him didn’t fare much better, similarly struggling to distribute from deep and drive the team on as he so often has in the past. A £100m-plus lynchpin to West Ham on his day, this just wasn’t his.
What Southgate has is a dilemma in his midfield that reflects his overall one with this side. To have or to hold? To stick or to twist? To deploy the handbrake or let this team go?
The European Championship success of last summer was underpinned, in large part, by a resolute double pivot at its heart, Kalvin Phillips meshing seamlessly with Rice as the arch screen to protect a defence that, in truth, at times needed protecting. This new version, with young attacking talent emerging as its would-be stars, now requires more than that. That’s where Bellingham comes in, a far more dynamic and offensive option, his goal against Iran – where he timed his arrival into the box with perfection – a perfect example of just what he can bring when the balance is right.
But it never was here. With the ball almost glued to England’s back four for long periods, you could be forgiven for thinking Harry Maguire and John Stones were having a game all on their own. Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw either side of them failed to adequately push on, instead pressed back into the flattest of flat back fours.
The ball progression through the thirds, seen so well already at this tournament from the likes of Spain, France and Brazil, was painfully absent from England, Harry Kane, toiling alone up top, an isolated figure throughout. Bukayo Saka, so bright against Iran, was dimmed, Raheem Sterling almost anonymous.
As Henderson pulled on his shirt to enter the fray from the bench many among the supporting contingent wanted instead a Phil Foden introduced into the middle third or a Marcus Rashford thrown on higher still. But the real issue for this team, and one that could ultimately decide how long they remain at this World Cup, may not be personnel or the positioning of them but the ability to get the ball to them in the first place. On that, as he has for some time now, Southgate must continue to ponder.