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How much football is too much football? England and Italy can give you the answer



After 84 minutes, Reece James wearily chased a weary pass and wearily tried to control the ball; instead he wearily kicked it out of play. James looked into the middle distance, at a sea of empty gold seats. Two minutes later, Fikayo Tomori skewed a clearance out of play and held his leg, limping away. Welcome to Total Football. As in it’s always on.

The first two editions of the Nations League felt different to this. The first league phase began only three months after the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup, but had the benefit of unfamiliarity. The second was played between September and November 2020, a year when Covid-19 robbed us of an international tournament. In both cases, the Nations League seemed inherently competitive, closer to major tournament than friendlies.

This year, it has lurched back in the wrong direction. This is nobody’s – or at least nobody involved in its organisation – fault. The group stage should have been played later this year, but then someone spotted that it can get close to 50 degrees in Qatar in June. The World Cup – combined with the delay of Euro 2020 – has created a relentless schedule in which the physical health of players is being ignored. The Nations League has become an unhelpful stodge, like a cheeseboard five minutes after your Christmas pudding.

This was peak low-key Nations League, if you’ll allow the oxymoron. Italy virtually picked a reserve XI and Gareth Southgate somewhere between A and B team. Throughout there was a vague sense of weary acceptance. The 2022-23 Uefa Nations League – let’s just get it done.

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The lower tier of the Steve Bull stand was filled with local children, whose shrieks gave the occasion the soundtrack of a school playground at the end of the summer term or an episode of Get Your Own Back. Before kick-off, Chris Powell threw and kicked footballs into the crowd as if he had been tasked with the role of children’s party entertainer. Harry Kane was asked by Channel 4 for his favourite pizza topping. At no point did you get the impression that what was about to follow mattered.

But there are two possible responses to that, and one of them is to see the meaningless as a form of liberation. When these two countries faced off in the European Championship final, the match was wrought with tension. Without the need for national angst, the game was open, if a little half-paced. If you’re going to play in front of kids, you might as well have some fun. That lasted until the final 30 minutes, at least.

Were either team any good? No idea. Were there enough mistakes to keep you entertained? Absolutely. Gianluigi Donnarumma spent the first half playing a game of chicken with England’s forwards, waiting later and later to play his passes. Passes were misplaced, headers missed, chances skied, most embarrassingly by Raheem Sterling and Gianluca Scamacca. Mason Mount whacked a crossbar; Aaron Ramsdale produced a wonderful save with his feet. Sterling was captain despite Harry Maguire starting, which may be something or nothing.

If there were cases to be made by those on the fringes of Gareth Southgate’s first team, they did so subtly. James Ward-Prowse lost the ball once or twice in midfield and occasionally looked backwards with his first pass. Tammy Abraham is a willing worker but it’s hard to believe that he scored 27 times for Roma last season when you watch him for England. Fikayo Tomori’s only other England minutes were against Kosovo and Andorra (36 in total). Twice he ceded possession and allowed Italy to break.

Player ratings

  • Aaron Ramsdale – 8
  • Reece James – 6
  • Kieran Trippier – 6
  • Fikayo Tomori – 6
  • Harry Maguire – 7
  • Declan Rice – 8
  • James Ward-Prowse – 6
  • Mason Mount – 7
  • Jack Grealish – 6
  • Raheem Sterling – 6
  • Tammy Abraham – 5

Jack Grealish gave with one foot and took with the other. Southgate was keen to stress that Grealish has played every international for which he has been available this year, but there is a debate about whether he is better as a starter or impact substitute. Grealish demanded the ball and was noticeably aggressive out of possession. He also took on the extra player and lost possession three times when a pass had presented itself.

Some will inevitably moan about the result, the performance or both. Several thousand on social media will use something almost entirely meaningless as definitive proof of something entirely meaningful, namely that England’s manager is too defensive, too cowardly or too unimaginative.

Don’t let them fool you. Don’t let them bring you down. We do not have to learn things from every match because sometimes there is nothing to learn. A few thousand children had a wonderful summer’s evening. Twenty-two players that really do deserve a rest played another football match. Even those who decry footballers as overpaid boy-men must accept that you cannot keep flogging them and hope that the quality of the product does not suffer. Still, always nice to get a preview glimpse of the World Cup group stages.

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