England suffer relegation from the Nations League as Giacomo Raspadori leads Italy to victory in Milan

England suffer relegation from the Nations League as Giacomo Raspadori leads Italy to victory in Milan

It is hard to believe that just over a year ago England found themselves within easy reach of a glorious prize. Kings of Europe, they might have been. Now Italy has sent them from the royal court, bound for a stint in the desert with countries like Albania, Kazakhstan and Georgia.

Beset by the threat of a first relegation in 150 years in English international football, Gareth Southgate looked into the playbook of his predecessors. Sam Allardyce and Roy Hodgson earned England’s place first because they were able to do what the Three Lions set out to do tonight: maintain discipline at the back, hit forwards long and try to win a set piece. . .

It never really seemed to work, not unless Jude Bellingham could produce something miraculous. Three games without scoring, an open-play goalscoring drought that now reaches seven and a half hours, the worst five-game unbeaten streak in this country since 2014. Even in the defeat at Wembley at Euro 2020, it seemed unimaginable that Southgate – – England’s most successful manager of a generation – may have lost the faith of his fans. This summer’s 4-0 loss against Hungary at the Molineux ended with shouts of mutiny, and it’s fair to wonder if there will be more against Germany on Monday.

More and more, you see the point of Southgate’s more vocal critics. Results at the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 have earned him the right to do things his way, but it’s fair to question whether, 56 days before England start in Qatar, he knows the right way. Caught between his more conservative tendencies and a group of players with plenty of attacking prospects, his team is neither one thing nor the other. He may not offer the elegance that the internet demands, but he didn’t seem to be holding Italy off, as he calmed down in a 1-0 loss at Milan that could have been much worse.

Of course, a balance must be struck. International tournaments are not, in general, rewarding for teams that play more advanced football. Spain, Germany and France won World Cups precisely because they are less than the sum of their parts. But they did have a serious goalscoring threat. A feeling that if you left them any holes to exploit, they would rip you to shreds: an Italy moment in 2012 or Brazil in 2014. Even Southgate’s England had the thrashing meted out to Ukraine in last summer’s European Championship.

Barely a year into this iteration they are suffocating. There was to be no shortage of progressive talent in Southgate’s side, national team player of the year Bukayo Saka being shoehorned in at left back to make room for Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling alongside Harry Kane. Add Bellingham, Reece James and Declan Rice to the mix and this was a team full of players who are used to imposing their will on their opposition.

They never seemed to do so in a soporific first 45 minutes at San Siro. Bellingham’s bizarre shot down the middle aside, England seemed bereft of ideas on how to get the ball to their hyper-talented front line. It doesn’t help that Nick Pope is inferior to Jordan Pickford and Aaron Ramsdale with the ball at his feet. Harry Maguire, meanwhile, played like a man well aware that the eyes of the English crowd were firmly fixed on the left side of the back three, hoping he would screw up.

It didn’t take long. Gianluca Scamacca towers over the Manchester United captain at the back post but hits the post from a tight angle. Maguire’s greatest asset is his ability to go out into midfield and pick up a pass; he seemed as fearful of the danger he might cause as any other observer.

Meanwhile, a more attack-oriented Southgate selection was cunningly tested by Italy, who would wait for the moment when Saka had gotten too far ahead and jump into the space he had left behind. Arsenal’s number 7 is not a winger and does not even play on the left wing at club level. In Sterling, Rice and Maguire, England had an established ecosystem and veteran internationals who could help the 21-year-old play to plan; it was just that there was no evidence of what that was. This felt like a pick to be perceived as more progressive, but either Saka should be in the squad in something close to his strongest position or Southgate should pick someone he feels vaguely comfortable at left-back.

Although the visitors opened up in the second half, that only opened the seams for Italy to attack, a marginal offside flag meant that if Nicolo Barella had converted Federico Dimarco’s cross as he should have, it would not have counted. England enjoyed more defensive possession, but still the impressive Giacomo Raspadori seemed to have an idea of ​​how to get to goal that no one else did.

Arriving midway through the second half, the Napoli forward beat Kyle Walker from behind and killed a long pass from Leonardo Bonucci over the top. The advantage of having three central defenders is that you can push your opponents safe in the knowledge that they have reserve men to cover them. And yet, no one got close to Raspadori, who had time to position himself and bend the ball into the far corner.

Desperation finally gave England a purpose, Kane pulling off an excellent double save from Gianluigi Donnarumma, but giving Italy no less chances, who could have rubbed even more salt on the wound he opened at Wembley last summer. The day Donnarumma, Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini challenged the Three Lions, it seemed to be nothing more than a superficial wound, a scratch that would heal into the kind of scars any victor has.

Fourteen months later, England is like Monty Python’s “Black Knight,” completely incapable of harming its enemy. As they emerge from European football’s top flight, it’s hard to help but think that the best of the best will look at Southgate’s men like King Arthur at his limbless foe, with more joy than fear.

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