With the on-form Mason Mount replacing Ross Barkley and an ostensibly more attack-minded 4-2-3-1 employed by Gareth Southgate for the first time in over two years, England approached their first ever away game against the Czech Republic with a Bohemian swagger. When in Prague…
They left it in a heap, ebbing and drooping to a first qualifying defeat in over a decade.
It wasn’t a freak result either. England looked like they were participating in Southgate’s system under duress, as though they didn’t really buy into this new-fangled, very modern, ultimately un-English way of playing. Over the past 180 minutes, England have conceded five goals in two games against Kosovo and the Czech Republic – maybe it’s a little early to be carving Gareth Southgate’s face into the White Cliffs of Dover.
In an alternative paradigm, England won this game 3 or 4-0; they were awarded a penalty after Sterling’s shrewd, jolting change of direction in the box tricked Masopust into bringing the forward to the Prague turf. Knocking the ball straight down the middle, Harry Kane dispatched the resulting spot-kick – in the motherland of the Panenka, it wasn’t quite the fabled dink down the middle which has been emulated so often since the Czech Republic’s finest hour in 1976, but it wasn’t far off.
But that, sadly, was as good as it got for England. Within five minutes, the Czech Republic were level; their centre-half Jakub Brabec stabbed home after a veritable plethora of England players (Maguire, Trippier, Henderson – take your pick) failed to clear the ball at the near post. While England were poor in a myriad of different areas tonight, it was their heebie-jeebies from set pieces which were the most blatant. The Czech Republic could have gone ahead barely five minutes later as another corner found its way to Patrik Schlick at the far post whose headed effort flew wide.
After the equaliser, England’s opponents continued to look the more threatening. With 25 minutes on the clock, their Group A rivals could boast 65% possession. When England did have possession, they took very little care of it. They weren’t pressed particularly aggressively and yet seemed incapable of getting the ball from the back four into midfield.
Fittingly, the first-half ended with a misplaced England pass –in the first 45, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Southgate’s side didn’t have a single meaningful spell of possession. England hadn’t won for over a century in Prague and, based on the first-half evidence, it wasn’t going to happen in 2019.
In the first 30/35 minutes of the second-half, England played with more conviction, but there was still a lack of direction in their play. Kane, moonlighting as a playmaker, was forced to drop deeper and deeper in order to try and make something happen for England and, on two occasions, he was almost successful. Two lacerating passes from the skipper opened up the Czech Republic defence, but Sterling and Sancho respectively were unable to capitalise. As a unit, the front-three seemed anaesthetised and behind them they lacked a regista who could dictate the rhythm of their offensive play.
In the 84th minute, Jordan Pickford’s aimless long-distance slice was headed into the path of Masopust who charged, inexplicably unobstructed, at England’s back four before cutting back for Zdnek Ondrasek to rifle home on his debut.
England had five minutes to avoid a first qualifying defeat for over a decade but were unable to carve out another significant chance. In the 92nd minute, as England reverted to 4-4-2 and the goalkeeper blindly pumped the ball up-field, you wondered whether they were naturally regressing to their Anglian kick-and-rush roots.
Tonight, England could have qualified for Euro 2020. Instead, they received a grisly reminder just how vulnerable Southgate’s side can be. The centre-half position is wide open, both literally and figuratively, and when England played from the back they looked like they’d be more comfortable in straitjackets. No matter how gifted the front three, it cannot offset a regimented defence and a sterile midfield. England can defend; that breathtaking performance in Seville last year proved it. What they seem to forget, however, is that so-called lesser teams can get past. We saw the Czechs do just that; England must examine themselves more closely in Sofia and beyond.
20 Masopust Substituted for Zmrhal at 90′
14 Jankto Booked at 8′ Substituted for Kopic at 83′
19 Schick Substituted for Ondrasek at 65′
3 Rose Booked at 10′
8 Henderson Booked at 90′
4 Rice Substituted for Abraham at 88′
10 Sancho Substituted for Rashford at 73′
11 Mount Substituted for Barkley at 72′
7 Sterling Booked at 68′