England leaves Qatar with a well-known question: where is the flair

England leaves Qatar with a well-known question: where is the flair

  • Sports
  • December 10, 2022
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AL KHOR, Qatar – It’s becoming a recurring nightmare for England. Luka Modric in 2018, Marco Verratti in the Euro 2020 final and now Antoine Griezmann. Players who can control the rhythm of play with the ball at their feet throw the Three Lions out of major tournaments with a depressing regularity.

And world champions France were the last side to send England home thanks to goals from Aurelien Tchouameni and Olivier Giroud, thanks to a 2-1 win at the Al Bayt Stadium.

This time, Gareth Southgate’s side at least found the courage to go back into the quarter-finals against Les Bleus from a goal down. Against Croatia in Russia 2018 and Italy at Euro 2020, England had the lead and momentum and lost both, with Modric dictating play for Croatia in the semi-finals at Moscow and Verratti helping Italy turn the tide at Wembley about a year and a half ago.

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But at Al Bayt, despite equalizing Tchouameni’s opener with a Harry Kane penalty, England could never find a solution to the problem Griezmann kept raising.

Before the game it was all about how England would stop Kylian Mbappe, the five-goal leader in the Golden Boot race, but Mbappe is all about pace and brilliance. Griezmann is the one who sets the pace and England have allowed him to fill the pocket between midfield and attack far too often.

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It was the Atletico Madrid midfielder’s precise cross from the left that saw Giroud’s header make it 2-1 in the 78th minute and that was the winning blow. Kane’s missed penalty, which he fired over the bar, would have brought England level, but it would have summed up his side’s arduous approach to lead the game into overtime with two penalties in overtime.

From open play it was the same old England: slow, sideways passes, predictable movements, crosses into the box. Yes, they tried, but teams that have such a basic game plan only get so far in major tournaments, so England are back – and preparing to go home.

There are two ways it can change ahead of Euro 2024 and the World Cup two years later. Firstly, a player emerges who is so obviously England’s playmaker that he’s put in the side, or secondly, the management philosophy changes – either that of Southgate or that of his successor if the former decides to step down after six years in charge – and one Player gets the chance to become the Griezmann of the Three Lions.

Phil Foden could play the role. The Manchester City player had a good World Cup and offered a strong offensive threat in most games, but against France he was wasted on the left wing.

Phil Foden (left) could fit perfectly into England midfield but has often been deployed further up. Alex Pantling – The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Had Southgate been brave enough to put Foden in the pocket between Kane and midfield and perhaps play alongside Declan Rice without Jordan Henderson as a handbrake, the 22-year-old could have hurt France as much as Griezmann did England. Pep Guardiola has given Foden freedom to play that role for City at times, but at Etihad he’s surrounded by better technical players in a side that dominates the ball so that would be a different challenge for England.

However, Foden is England’s future alongside 19-year-old Jew Bellingham. The problem with England, however, is that the future never comes. The present is crucial. They can’t throw the ball any further until the next tournament, two years later.

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If Foden isn’t the solution, perhaps James Maddison should now be given a chance to play as England’s No10. The Leicester City midfielder was called up from the international wild by Southgate to be called up in England’s 26-man squad but an injury on arrival in Qatar threw Maddison back and he didn’t get a kick-off during the tournament.

However, having only been capped once by Southgate, there’s a feeling the manager isn’t fully convinced of Maddison. The same could be said of Jack Grealish, who was a sporadic substitute at this World Cup. Both have their weaknesses, as does Griezmann, but France coach Didier Deschamps prefers to highlight the positive aspects of the former Barcelona player.

Southgate too often resorts to the safer option; did he really need Henderson and Rice and Bellingham against Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot? It’s all about preference, and Southgate’s instincts tend to be risk-averse rather than luck favoring the brave.

But had Kane scored his second penalty to put the game into overtime, who knows how it would have ended? England could have won the game and recorded a semi-final against Morocco in which they would have been heavy favourites.

But without flair and creativity in the center of the pitch, England were once again lacking. They are caught in a vicious circle so they go to Euro 2024 being asked the same questions.

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