OWhat have we learned? What did you feel ? What were the bullets, the red lines, the notes of glory in this goalless Nations League international in an empty stadium between two teams who spent long periods of this game fighting against an invisible plane of resistance, like flies buzzing on a window?
As competitive games have advanced, this one has pushed the semantic boundaries of the word “competitive” into new and interesting spaces. At times it felt like a late July practice game. As the ball sullenly shuttled around the back of midfield, you half expected to look at the squad sheets and see ‘A Triallist’ listed.
However, Molineux is a nice place to play; a fun, noisy cantilevered thing that soars above houses and trees, its golden supports have faded a bit to the color of melted cheese. Here it was of course empty, apart from a group of children in a stall. What a wonderful idea to take England’s empty stadium across the country in this tournament year.
And as always, there are always patterns, glimmers of meaning, stars that need to rise and fall in these games. Two slightly interesting things happened here. The first was Jack Grealish leaving for England, as was constant low-level public demand, the sideline cry for the People’s Jack. So much so that it was tempting to ask ourselves before this game what would be the best result for Gareth Southgate: Grealish playing well, solving a problem? Or Grealish is playing poorly, also solving a glitch?
English football has always loved a famous cause. It’s a great old tradition, a reflex, a kind of folk thing. But Grealish is also an odd cause, mostly because the desire for his presence is based more on an idea of what he might do, a sense of something starry and unspoken, rather than hard evidence. Previous people’s favorites at least tended to have a trailer behind them. Grealish doesn’t really produce enough to justify the level of sentiment around his non-selection. It is not a Hoddle or a Le Tissier. He’s more of a talent maverick for the Instagram era, the age of celebrity obsession, Grealish’s desire is Fomo. It’s all the good times you’ve ever had.
But it was a useful thing to see him against this level of opponent. And he played pretty well as England’s most urgent striker, wandering the pitch from the left of the trident behind Tammy Abraham. At first he was diligent and solid. For a while he started to wander inside, which seemed like the right thing to do given the ambient temperature of the game. After 27 minutes, Reece James overlapped on the right, took the ball away and Grealish tried an improvised prod with the toe of his boot which was blocked by Federico Gatti.
The second half saw England settle into a more gradual pace, moving away to the edge of the Italian defence. For a while, Grealish started doing more, venting with some authority on the left.
The thought occurred to him that he was just being too nice right now, too diligent. Perhaps what he really needs to find in this team is a bit more of the Jack the Pirate King energy he carried at Aston Villa. International football can sometimes be slow. The game is dense, a question of system and fronts of tempo and pressure. A spell where one of your midfielders plays like the day is theirs can change the temperature.
For Grealish, the battle right now is to get to those levels, to earn the right to be in those games, while still retaining his jagged edge, his mischief, the ability to do things that open up the game. Sometimes it seems uncertain of its own role in this field, of its limits. How far can he go?
If it wasn’t a Jack game, or much of a game at all, it carried an increasingly familiar undercurrent of alarm.
If there is a note of concern – and there is; this team looks a little over-mature, a little tired – it’s in this midfield, an unsolved puzzle from the Southgate years. Even a recovering List B Italy – an Italy with their head in the clouds – was able to pass the ball with more speed, to have a bit more urgency in their movement.
Italy played this game in crisp triangles, zingy triangles. They had a lot of those crunchy, tart triangles. But then so does a sack of Doritos, and while Italy still lacked any real incision at the end, even a standby team had more mastery in that area, with Manuel Locatelli a class above. above what England could offer.
One will worry about the failure to score a single field goal in the last three games, but that looks like a result, not a cause. England will score again; they have a good offensive talent. The lack of model, class, real ease in this midfield seems to be the real concern, and the one that still has no obvious resolution.