Fok that’s it then. We will meet again: in eight weeks actually at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. But it felt like something else, a last trip to Wembley, probably for sure Gareth Southgate six years of this odyssey.
And if this should be the last note in this ledger – so many memories: great results, cool midweek draws, a frenzied SWAT squad after the lockout – there is finally a sense of familiar faces and old habits. Not to mention the shock of a lifetime from this team that isn’t quite ready to leave him.
Plus, of course, there are some warning signs in the middle of it too. The story here will be England’s revival from 2-0 down to 3-3 at the end. For Southgate, who always talks about performance, the key figures must also be the process that took England to two goals down, and the performance of a terribly sharp, terribly confused defense against Harry Maguire this seems like too far a warning.
It started in the 50th minute. Maguire also did this by counter-pressing himself, taking the loose ball and passing it straight to a footballer who can simply move his feet faster, who seems to be moving in thin air to have a more successful relationship with the material plane.
Jamal Musiala tortured Maguire at times in the opener League of Nations match between these two teams. And frankly, that’s not what you want when you’re Harry, a dervish of feints and jokes and perfect balance, a way of hovering low to the ground like a motorcycle racer taking a turn.
For Maguire, who is essentially a mortal in this company, whose qualities do not extend to elite athleticism and quick muscles, such a moment is essentially inappropriate. He bravely turned to face the object that now entered his field of vision, standing ahead, just looming there like a cupboard left at the turn of a staircase. And, of course, Musiala was too quick to switch the ball the other way as Maguire swung his right foot at the last post. It wasn’t a tackle, just a kick to the shin. Musiala went down. The Dutch referee somehow didn’t award a penalty, but VAR did, almost instantly.
It doesn’t have to be negative. There is information here, just as there was life in England’s response at the other end. That information is: Maguire is not fit, ready or able to perform at this level right now.
Loyalty is a good thing. But it can also lead you to some strange places. Ten minutes later, Maguire was left spinning around like a suburban breakdancer, making a snow angel on the turf, while Musiala circled around him again like a man absent-mindedly avoiding a roadside puddle.
Southgate and Maguire. It’s amazing ambidextrousness, amazing interdependence. Maguire was good to Southgate, a fixture at the best of times, a tournament warrior. Southgate was even better for Maguire. All 47 matches were for Southgate’s national team. Southgate’s England basically got Maguire his move to Manchester United, gave him a stage, a personality, an aura, stood by him through the oddity of Mykonos. Maguire made five appearances in the year since joining Leicester from Hull as he made his first appearance in Russia. In the end, he was part of a World Cup national team, a meme, a fixture, a player elevated to a different trajectory. And England was in many ways his career.
And shortly after Maguire went down again, losing the ball upfield, he collapsed like a crumbling Anglo-Saxon wall, picked up by Kai Havertz, who then rose to score at the other end.
Southgate did the right thing to pick here, given the schedule, the rush, the strange anti-energy surrounding these final days of Gareth. This is not the time to “figure things out” about marginal players. This is the time to try to make this organization feel like a team. So John Stones came on for Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw came on for Bukayo Saka and that was it, a team that even in names and numbers spoke volumes for the lack of development here.
Five of the ten outfielders were Gareth’s original reserves, the class of 2018. That’s partly because there simply isn’t the golden crop of super talent that some Englishmen, caught up in the constant hype of the Premier League, want to see. Part of it is a failure of management, flexibility, tactical acumen, what is and always has been Southgate’s weakest point.
There is still time to change this history. Stones’ hamstring injury adds another dimension. But if Southgate really plans to be as ruthless as he has suggested, he should surely start with one of his closest generals.