Blandest of displays proves England are still far from top of the food chain

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

One point gained, or two hours lost? Certainly as England and the United States trundled their way to a fey and forgettable goalless draw, it was only natural to wonder how we might all have been spending this time more productively. Perhaps when the end finally comes, when we are lying on our deathbeds preparing to gasp our final breath, we will think back to that night we spent watching John Stones and Harry Maguire mesmerically passing the ball to each other, and quietly mourn the passing of time.

It was scarcely more enthralling in the flesh than it will have been on television. Al Bayt stadium rumbled and murmured. A lone drummer in the US end pounded out a menacing rhythm. Stones and Maguire carried on passing the ball to each other, with Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier occasionally chipping in. There was some more passing. Some more drumming. Empires rose and fell. The seas parted and unparted again. Everyone got a little older.

Afterwards, Gareth Southgate sat in his press conference chair and took little sips of water and gently nudged aside a few shuffling questions. Next to him, the FA’s media officer Andy Walker scrolled listlessly through his phone. The whole occasion seemed ornately, magnificently pointless: everyone simply going through the motions, doing the things they knew how to do, content simply to stay out of trouble.

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Perhaps the lack of energy should not surprise us. The Iran game was a draining occasion on both a physical and emotional level. England may have looked flat here, but they did not subside or collapse as other major nations have done in this tournament. Even so, it’s hard to remember an England tournament game that felt so devoid of basic purpose, basic adventure, basic commitment. The safest conclusion to draw is that this is simply how it goes sometimes. England played a similar game against Scotland in 2021 and we all know how that ended. Trust the process.

And yet if you peered under the bonnet here (hood, for our American readers) it was possible to spot a slightly subtler process at work. It wasn’t just the loss of sporting momentum, the sparkle and awe of the Iran performance evaporating in the space of 90 translucent minutes. On a wider level Southgate’s England feel like a team suddenly searching for its wider purpose, its identity, its reason for being. A lot of the air and the urgency seems to have gone out of this thing. How has it happened, and how can they get it back?

England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans at the end of the match.
England manager Gareth Southgate said he thought his team were ‘outstanding’ after the match. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

This goes beyond one performance, and in many ways goes beyond performance itself. Naturally results like this, a run of one win in eight games, do not help. But in large part England are also the victims of forces beyond their control: football overload, the existential drudgery of the Nations League, the psychotic weirdness of this Qatar World Cup. Football’s place in the world, and our place in football, has never felt quite so uncertain. England may yet do extremely well at this World Cup, may even win it. But what would it mean? What would it feel like?

You can occasionally sense that ambivalence in England’s football. Do you go for the bold option, take the risk, invite contact, embrace the contest? Or do you simply pass the ball back to Stones and start the cycle again? Do you wear the armband and screw the consequences? Or do you step back from the brink, take your medicine, withdraw and regroup? Do you let Phil Foden loose or keep him on the bench for later? Part of the reason England have been so inconsistent in recent months is because they seem unsure of the right answers, unsure that there even is a right answer.

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Perhaps the point to be made here is about confrontation. The US had come for a scrap. They had a clear strategy based on compact shape and rapid forward movement. They were prepared to make the game ugly. England, by contrast, played as if they wanted the game to be as frictionless as possible. There was a squeamishness to them, a determination to take the path of least resistance. The first tackle did not come until 38th minute. The back four had more touches (358) than the rest of the team put together. Afterwards, Southgate said they were “outstanding”. It is, as it ever was, a game of opinions.

England have players here with a thrill for a fight. Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Marcus Rashford: these are risk-taking players at heart, players who want to express themselves, players unafraid of contact. But to win a duel you first have to want to fight it. On the field and off it, England’s approach to the World Cup appears to be to stay out of trouble for as long as possible. Well, we’ll see how that goes.

They gained a point here, and will probably qualify for the next round. But it’s hard not to feel that something important and essential has been lost somewhere along the way.