London – Put out more flags. Dust down the red and white jester’s hat. Root out the gumshield, the crumpled Yekaterinburg metro map. And prepare to head once more into that strangely grueling territory between bruised and fearful cynicism and the eternal quiver of tournament hope.
England have booked their place at the World Cup in Russia after surely the most meandering, flaccid qualification victory yet devised by any England team. Slovenia were beaten by Harry Kane’s goal but make no mistake – this was both a dreadful game of football and a numbing spectacle for those loyal supporters still willing to drag themselves out on a Thursday night to enter the vast money-rinsing concrete cauldron of the Wembley entertainment complex.
Victory may have sealed qualification, but it also deflated further any realistic expectations of what might happen when England get there. This should be of great concern to the Football Association. There are only so many times even England fans will be prepared to pay £40 for the pleasure of throwing paper airplanes at the pitch, which brought the loudest cheers of the night right up until Kane’s finish in stoppage time.
At the end England’s players gathered in the center circle and wandered around applauding the empty red plastic seats and the backs of people queuing to leave while the PA burbled gamely about the prestige friendlies to come. As an image of England football 2017, and the slow, gilded death for what was once football’s most compelling theater, it is probably quite hard to beat.
England were at least terrible in a grimly fascinating way. Gone are the days when a poor England team sent it long, seeking out the head of some game forward battering ram. Here they were terrible in the new style, passing to each other but setting out with two lumbering central midfield wardrobes shielding a defense threatened only by its own misplaced passes. In the opening hour they produced a performance so lacking in purpose and precision it was like watching a piece of performance art, a 45-minute Warhol-style short film called Wembley Angst No94.
England did improve after the hour mark but by then they had a lot of ground to make up from a standing start as the game congealed early on into another game just like the other games. Jordan Henderson had the ball quite a lot, worrying about from side to side, always looking back into the yonic safety of his defense. Midway through the half England produced a stunningly terrible free-kick routine, working the ball very slowly backwards and finally teeing it up for Henderson to perform a spectacular falling-over air-kick on the edge of the area. Grimly, Slovenia cleared.
Only Marcus Rashford seemed really interested in trying to run forward quickly. Raheem Sterling ran quite a lot. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. And that was pretty much that for the most soft-pedaled minor chord moment of qualification imaginable, given a spark of life at the death by Kane’s opportunism.
What now then? One thing is clear. England does not expect. It has been more than a decade since the national team had the luxury of traveling in a state of doomed optimism, the mood ever more stricken since that golden, foolish summer of 2006 when the world was still young, when Crouchie did the robot with Prince William, and when the idea of some grand Premier League talent-legacy waiting to be spent died for good on the fields of Stuttgart, Cologne and Gelsenkirchen.
The challenge now for Gareth Southgate is not to try to reach the World Cup final. It is to produce a team that people actually want to watch. This has been a deathly qualification, with only 16 goals scored and a feeling of having spent endless hours watching England’s furrowed and fearful back five play a variety of keep-ball.
From here it seems absolutely clear Southgate needs to take a chance, to chuck out the Dan Ashworth handbook of mind-bogglingly dull and outmoded possession football, to accept that playing with adventure, life, pace, and risky attacking vim might revive not just the dwindling England brand but his own managerial career.
In their current guise, watching England is like watching a 12-round under-card split decision wrestle-off between a pair of ponderous 15st taxi drivers, the craft-free double defensive midfield bolt the managerial equivalent of tucking both your shirt and your vest into your underpants.
What is the point of playing this way? From here to next summer every moment of Southgate’s time should be devoted to trying to wring the most out of what he does have, a spritz of genuine forward talent in Kane, Dele Alli and Rashford. He needs a midfielder who can pass. And he needs to trust his defense to carry the ball forward.
Success for this team would involve simply playing with a little freedom, exploring their own limits and refusing to leave the competition until they have at least been beaten by a demonstrably superior team. Score some goals. Produce at least one performance that lets everyone feel giddy and stupid and deluded for four days in June.
There is a wider issue here about international football itself. When the away fans in Malta last month sang against their team, they weren’t angry or incensed or spoiling for a fight. They were taking the mickey out of the whole thing: England, us, them, the enduring disjunct between a domestic league of such screeching urgency and a national team who have withered in its shadow. Take note, Gareth. It is when they stop booing you really want to start worrying. For now England will travel with hope, as ever. But not much of it.
The Guardian Sport