We might already have passed the point of no return, the point at which people stopped caring about the England national team. That, ultimately, is the biggest problem for the stakeholders in the English game. Manager Gareth Southgate might have the dressing room, but he has lost the crowd, and there is no coming back from that.
Fans at a half-empty Wembley were throwing paper planes to amuse themselves so dire was the entertainment on offer against Slovenia. Twitter was awash with dissent. Pundits in the television studio threw up their arms at the sheer emptiness of the experience, yet England just don't get it. The manager, the players, the FA hierarchy, none of them.
“That’s all that matters, you know. We are all delighted. That’s job done for us.” The words of skipper Harry Kane after his late toe-poke saw England edge past bang average opposition to book a place at next year’s World Cup in Russia. Qualification no longer counts for anything. England are pretty good at that, equalling their best run, six in a row. At tournaments, we tend to stink the place out. Successive cycles of non-productivity has seen attachment dwindle.
The action these days is in the club game. The Premier League, with its array of attacking talents, the best coaches in the world, is a different proposition to the staid churn produced by the national team. Beyond that, the Champions League represents the high point of footballing endeavour, the best club sides in the world, the most expensively assembled teams in history providing a proper return on our emotional investment.
Watching England is a chore. My son is 18-years-old and a football-mad follower of Manchester United. England simply do not engage him. Boring, he says. If Marcus Rashford is playing, he might tune in. Otherwise, forget it. He tells me his mates feel exactly the same. They argue the toss over Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barca, Real, PSG, but England? Forget it.
It appears the indifference of youth is contagious, spreading to an older generation brought up on the idea that England represent a pinnacle. They might have done in the pre-Premier League epoch when teams were not flush with the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho or Alexis Sanchez, but not any more. More than half a century without looking like winning a pot has placed England in a precarious spot.
The traditional fan base is dying off. The youth aren’t interested. And even those who could give a toss are losing heart. “We are all looking forward to the World Cup, but not to watching England,” said Ian Wright in the ITV studio. “Tonight has reminded me why I've hardly watched an international match in a couple of years,” said Michael Owen on Twitter.
Stan Collymore weighed in with this withering observation: “Crowd ready to turn here after several £50m players can’t find a team-mate from five yards. Rather dispiriting to watch. A sea of average.” The sample among the fans was equally damning. “This is one of the worst games of 'football' I've ever seen and I watched every game for two years under Louis van Gaal,” said a Manchester United supporter.
“Southgate looks like a substitute geography teacher who can't find the classroom,” said another. “Got to feel for Michael Keane having to play for Everton and England,” chirped a long-suffering Toffee, while the Mirror’s Mike Walters moaned: “We bring the football season shuddering to a halt for two weeks to accommodate this bilge?”
Rashford was the only outfield player who looked the part, eager for the ball, full of tricks, looking to beat his man. He made things happen. Beyond him it was flat. The ball went sideways and backwards. Players received the ball standing still. Raheem Sterling, who looks unstoppable in the service of Manchester City, was a blunt instrument in this configuration.
His City team-mate, Kyle Walker, so threatening as an auxiliary attacker down the right at the Etihad, barely featured in the final third apart from the scrambled finale when England at last put some pace on the ball and he was able to pick out Kane for the goal.
Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier were too deep and too one-paced, duplicating each other against a team that could muster barely 25 percent possession in the first half. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was simply never in the game, a shadow of the player who promised so much in his early days at Arsenal.
This is not about quality necessarily. There is something deep-rooted in the psychology of the England set-up that inhibits talent, stifles expression, and one year into the job, Southgate looks no nearer solving that riddle than his predecessors. England conclude the World Cup qualification matches in Lithuania on Sunday before reconvening in November for friendlies against Germany and Brazil. Ye Gods. We might have to watch those matches from behind the sofa.
Here’s an idea. Perhaps Southgate should throw caution to the wind, convention out the window and select a squad from the lower age groups, where England have been enjoying some success. He could hardly do worse, and Rashford would still qualify by virtue of turning 20 only on the last day of this month.
Three years ago in December 2014, the FA rolled out their template for future success, outlining an aspirational DNA that they hoped would establish a positive, new identity across the age groups eventually feeding into a vibrant first team. Dominating possession, tactical flexibility and winning back the ball quickly were the utopian objectives. In other words, the FA wanted England to be Spain.
Well, that isn’t happening, and won’t be before the World Cup in Russia, as Southgate admitted after toiling past Slovenia. “We won’t become Spain in eight months,” he said. “Tonight highlighted where we are. Of course, we'd have liked to have played more fluidly and scored more goals. It is a work in progress.
“When I was given the job the aim was to qualify for the World Cup. As a young team having to deal with the expectation and criticism of their performances, it is tough for them. They are giving everything they've got. They don't have Champions League winning medals between them.”
No, but they return to Manchester City, United, Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool, where they are working respectively under Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp, arguably the top five coaches in the world. That has to count for something.
Southgate can’t really be blaming inexperience when his most impressive player on this occasion, Rashford, was, in fact, his youngest. Fearlessness, confidence, belief, all the attributes Southgate talks about, run through Rashford like a stripe through rock. Sterling looks unplayable at City, Walker a £50m beast marauding down the right. Stick them in an England shirt and they become slow, tentative and ultimately ineffective.
What England most lack is the key to the door, a Silva, a Coutinho an Isco, an Iniesta, even a Christian Eriksen, mercurial types to slip between the banks of four and open up defences. The return of Adam Lallana would help, and maybe a plunge into the unknown with the promotion of the 17-year-old son of Stockport being fast-tracked at City by Guardiola, Phil Foden.
If nothing else the Silva-esque Foden would connect England with the young generation that has gone missing in the stands. It’s not necessarily about winning anymore. England haven’t done that in more than half a century. It’s about entertainment. And as that god of attacking football, Guardiola, preaches; get the style right, and the will results take care of themselves.