Well, it is a pretty weird World Cup anyway. Can we asterisk this thing? Just a thought, but is it actually too late to boycott? Norway did the T-shirts. Good optics.
For Gareth Southgate and England this was another cowed and pallid step towards Qatar 2022. What is the perfect prep for these four-yearly moments of destiny anyway? How about not scoring a goal from open play for almost 500 minutes? How about three defeats in five games, topped by a 1-0 here against a so-so Italy? How about getting relegated?
It would at least be hard to accuse Southgate’s team of peaking too early, of risking a loss of momentum, of doing the robot prematurely in front of Prince William. Six years into the age of Gareth, it has to be said this is the most feeble, the most incoherent this team has ever looked.
At the end Southgate went to applaud the England fans high in the gods. In return he was booed, a booing that seemed to swell and wax as he walked along clapping back, all alone in his patch of green. You who turn the wheel and look to windward. Remember Southgate, who was once The One.
Germany on Monday, it has to be said, could get ugly.
And is this thing really done? The players are still good, the manager has so much credit. The only real positive was the way the players kept running. At the final whistle Jude Bellingham sunk to the turf and just stayed there looking crumpled. Bellingham had barely stopped for 90 minutes, out there oddly exposed in a midfield that always seemed to be whirling about in too much space.
England found a system here that made an elegant, technical, imposing midfielder look like a man being chased around a car park by a swarm of bees. But still, nobody gave up or sulked or looked ok with this. That’s the thing that says there is still life.
What about the rest of it? England were terribly poor in patches. And poor in a confusing way. On paper this was a progressive team, the team Southgate is meant to pick, the tossing away the cardigan team. Eric Dier in the central quarterback role! Bellingham and Declan Rice as a zippy midfield pivot. Kane-Foden-Sterling, the frontline Pep – racked, no doubt, with Gareth-envy – could have had. Even the wing-backs looked excitingly fluid, at least, as a concept, a hypothetical.
San Siro itself was an otherworldly spectacle at kick off, a vast Brutalist spaceship, with its huge clanky robot legs, the enormous expanse of damp September air under its flying slab roof. A stage fit for, well, what exactly?
This wasn’t just a bad game for England. It was a weird game, with something mummified and vague, football played through a smeared piece of glass. From kick off England were jittery, a team playing with petrol station ball, always bouncing too high, always skewing away off the toe, buffering in the wind.
Somehow the players always seemed to be facing the wrong way: for Rice and Bellingham much of the opening ten minutes was spent trying really hard to turn around. Italy aren’t great. But in those opening exchanges the ball just looked softer and happier in their hands, curving in a more elegant parabola between the blue shirts.
They looked in those moments like England 1.0, Olde England, England for whom the ball is a ticking parcel to be hurled away as quickly as possible. Raheem Sterling had one of those nights where he seems to be playing on the jagged volcanic crust of the planet Mars. With 36 minutes gone he picked up the ball 45 yards from goal and just ran forward, head waggling, eyes on the swivel, like an impala bolting for the water hole, before deciding to spank the ball really hard at Kane’s neck. Which was definitely an option.
Only Phil Foden seemed to have escaped in the first half, sniping into space, looking as though he actually felt ok about being in close contact with an inflated leather sphere. Teams are odd things. It is rare to see an entire one infected with shared boredom in this way. With an hour gone England had taken 14 shots. They had 56 per cent possession and made 88 per cent of their passes. It felt like a glitch, like lost data.
They went behind on 67 minutes, a moment of game-saving grace made by the toe of Giacomo Raspadori’s right foot. Leonardo Bonucci spotted Raspadori’s run. He caught the pass mid-stride, saw space and angles and time to shift his weight, then bent a low, hard shot past Nick Pope’s left hand.
England pressed harder after that. They did the switch, the only switch, Gareth’s gambit, moving to a back four. And the thought occurred: really, still? Is that what you’ve got? Are we not going to look for another variation? Southgate has never been a fine point tactical guy. He wants control, but not throttling control. More room temperature control, control that wears you down. The tinkering between three and four is very broad brush. And it has been six years now.
Is this thing done? Southgate is a vibes man, a culture man, a manager who seeks to create a clean clear space around his team. The World Cup is now one game and two months away. Change can happen quickly in soccer. It was just hard, watching this, to see where that life will come from.