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After Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden burst England’s COVID-19 bubble, a philosophy-affirming victory would have been welcome for Gareth Southgate tonight. Instead, his side delivered a goalless draw and one of those performances which will leave him asking the most uncomfortable of questions: are we as good as we think we are?

The manager adopted a back three for England’s second match of the Nations League in Group B. It wasn’t the 3-5-2 we saw at the World Cup two summers ago, but rather a 3-4-3 which – ostensibly – allowed Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho to play a little narrower in the forward line, with the width coming from the wingbacks. 

Still trying to figure out its geometry, England looked awkward in their new shape. Their primary formation will surely be a 4-3-3 going forward, but a degree of elegant variation is necessary to prevent predictability at the elite level. This setup, however, looked a feeble backup option. 

The problem – as has become the norm over the years – was rooted in the midfield. Declan Rice lined up alongside the much-heralded debutant Kalvin Phillips in a flat two-man pairing. The former looked like he had put his boots on backwards tonight; when he wasn’t conceding free-kicks Rice was playing frustrating retrograde passes to the defence.  

His partner is an attractive prospect, one who has flowered under the incomparable tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United in the Championship over the past two seasons. He will play Premier League football this year and will be comfortable doing so. But while the darling of statisticians had a steady debut, he did nothing to suggest that he is the answer to England’s midfield problems as many have suggested – not in this system anyway. 

Match Report: Denmark 0-0 England

A Yorkshire-born pace-setter, Alan Bennett meets Andrea Pirlo, the idea of Kalvin Phillips is evocative. And yet it was the immediacy of Jack Grealish which looked most likely to create something when he replaced Philips with 15 minutes remaining. Before his introduction, England looked as flat as a Copenhagen bike lane. 

Away from the midfield, another debutant, Wolverhampton Wanderers centre-back Conor Coady had an encouraging game alongside Joe Gomez and Eric Dier in defence. He looked unhurried and took excellent care of the ball. In the first half, if a goal was going to come, it looked likely that it would be preceded by one of his jagging diagonals. 

After another Coady pipette pass plopped into the path of Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right-hand side, it became clear that they were attempting to bypass the anaemic midfield altogether. Fewer white shirts in the middle meant that England found it difficult to go from building from the back to the final third, with the ball on the floor at least.

Match Report: Denmark 0-0 England

But more than anything, England tonight lacked that austere quality which great sides possess: that high-mindedness, that cold-blooded intransigence that seems to push them down the right corridors of history. It isn’t a self-belief problem, nor one of entitlement – rather one of will power. This was little more than a friendly, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen this with England. It’s hard to see them winning anything before this changes. 

For large parts of the game, Denmark were the better side. With then minutes to go, skyscraper-made-flesh Yussuf Poulsen’s knockdown fell to Christian Eriksen on the edge of the six-yard box. But he couldn’t get his body over the ball in time and blazed a shot over Pickford’s bar. 

For a nanosecond, it looked like England had snatched a late win for the second match in a row. Harry Kane capitalised on a defensive mix-up before rounding Kasper Schmeichel and rolling the ball towards goal. No. A buzz-killing Danish limb lurched into frame and cleared off the line. 

With the back end of the season within spitting distance, it was hard to shake the feeling that some of these players didn’t feel like they should be here – and perhaps they shouldn’t. It does seem slightly ludicrous to jam a friendly competition into an already packed schedule, but that doesn’t explain why England have been so stale for two matches in succession against equally tired opposition.

    DENMARK

   *     1 Schmeichel
   *     18 Wass
   *     13 M Jorgensen
   *     6 Christensen
   *     7 Skov
   *     15 Nørgaard sub. Højbjerg 73′
   *     10 Eriksen
   *     8 Delaney
   *     20 Poulsen
   *     12 Dolberg sub. Falk Jensen 76′
   *     9 Braithwaite/Booked at 52 mins sub. Kjaer 83′

    Substitutes

   *     2 Andersen
   *     3 Vestergaard
   *     4 Kjaer
   *     5 Maehle Pedersen
   *     11 Falk Jensen
   *     14 Dalsgaard
   *     16 Lössl
   *     17 Christiansen
   *     19 Bruun Larsen
   *     21 Cornelius
   *     22 Rönnow
   *     23 Højbjerg

    ENGLAND

   *     1 Pickford
   *     5 Gomez
   *     4 Coady
   *     6 Dier
   *     2 Alexander-Arnold sub. Maitland-Niles 87′
   *     8 Rice
   *     7 Phillips sub. Grealish 76′
   *     3 Trippier
   *     11 Sancho sub. Mount 60′
   *     9 Kane
   *     10 Sterling

    Substitutes

   *     12 Mings
   *     13 Pope
   *     14 Keane
   *     15 Maitland-Niles
   *     16 Ward-Prowse
   *     17 Grealish
   *     18 Mount
   *     19 Abraham
   *     20 Ings
   *     22 Henderson

   *     Referee:
   *     István Kovács