It was a tight set from England. They played all the classics: Danger Down the Right, Shaky Between the Sticks (Jordan’s Little Arms), and everyone’s favourite chart-topper, Soul-Crushing Disappointment. With club football in a vomit-inducing, Big Picture tailspin, it’s comforting to know that we can rely on the national team for the status quo, even if the matches are being played out under a cloud of viral mustard gas.
Gareth Southgate’s side lost for the first time in 20 matches at Wembley, with Christian Eriksen scoring the decisive goal from the spot as Denmark won 1-0 and knocked England off top spot in their Nations League group. It was a bitter result, but not the most unedifying of performances, with their task made harder after Harry Maguire’s dismissal before half-time.
While England’s right-hand side is stacked as high as King Kong’s wedding cake, the left casts a much smaller shadow. Their loss tonight shed some light on the extent of this strength-cum-weakness. England were okay down the left but the absence of a negative is not itself a positive. On the right flank on the other hand, they looked genuinely promising – in the first half, at least.
The left-hand problem was exacerbated by the absence of Kieran Trippier who has started the last three competitive England matches at left-back. He was unavailable after being summoned to an FA disciplinary meeting to face a charge relating to breaching betting rules which could potentially see him suspended for as long as six months. With Chilwell picking up an injury, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was chosen to fill the vacant position. He formed part of a back five, the formation the manager seems to have settled on. Mind you – it quickly mutated into a four.
Away from the badlands of Old Trafford, Harry Maguire might have been looking forward to England duty as a bit of a holiday – and a nice one this time. But the wind blew away the sand and the bulldozers came for the palm trees after half an hour when Maguire, already on a booking, lunged to recover the ball from his own loose touch. Red card. On a human level, it was impossible not to feel sorry for him as he slumped off; it was as though he was walking to the gallows.
A heartbeat later and England were 1-0 down. Pickford and Walker got themselves in a mess, and with the goalkeeper flapping pitifully away like an injured pigeon, the defender brought Thomas Delaney to the floor. The decision was Cushelle-soft, but it was a mess of England’s own making. On his 100th Denmark appearance, Eriksen swatted home the penalty. Despite playing better than they had in the first half against the No.1-ranked side in the world on Sunday, England trailed 1-0 at the interval.
Before half-time, England had the upper hand. Chelsea teammates Mason Mount and Reece James were a busy presence on the right-hand side, putting cross after cross into the Denmark box – there must have been ten or 15 in the first 45. England’s forwards, however, were unable to match their efforts.
In the early throes, Mason Mount was superb down the right, and the pro-Grealish brigade should not be the anti-Mount brigade, but one wonders why Southgate seems almost pointedly reluctant to turn to the Aston Villa captain. With England 1-0 with 20 minutes remaining, he elected to bring on Dominic Calver-Lewin and Jadon Sancho, leaving Grealish and the claret-shirted portion of the Midlands to watch on exasperated.
International duty is a battle for the manager’s eyeballs, like The Bachelor but with more Louis Vuitton washbags and Beats headphones. Always the Brummy bridesmaid, never the Brummy bride, Jack Grealish seems to be losing that battle. It might seem like a lazy comparison, but he has a Gascoigne-esque quality, the kind of weapons-grade personality that can turn a match by itself – and his feet aren’t bad either.
In the scope of the Grealish talk, Mount has unfairly been cast as a teacher’s pet type. He almost added another layer of shine to Mr Southgate’s apple when his header drew an astonishing, gravity-defying save from Kasper Schmeichel with 20 minutes to go. Not long after, England nearly fell further behind, full-back Daniel Wass’s header from an inswing cross couldn’t find its target. Pione Sisto wasted a breakaway chance a few moments later too, but in the end it mattered not.
It was a night that will bring England back down to earth, but not one which they should lose too much sleep over. For large parts of this match, they were the better side. But like any other team, they are a slave to the chaotic nature of football. More than anything, it is a loss that will do nothing to abate the growing confusion regarding Southgate’s selection policy.