It is almost exactly 11 years since English football’s day of reckoning: the night the vaunted ‘golden generation’ took on a slick-passing Croatia side at Wembley, were given the runaround on their own turf and a team that had been touted for global domination were consigned to watching the European Championship from their sofas.
In hindsight, it was a fateful summer. Two days after a ball-hungry Spain ran out tournament winners in Vienna, Pep Guardiola was appointed manager of Barcelona, and football’s possession obsession was quickly cranked up to new heights.
We all know what happened next – Guardiola’s band of velvet-booted imps went some way to redefining elite-level football as we know it – but what it meant for England was a belated period of introspection.
The realisation suddenly dawned that English players – and the midfielders in particular – were not quite as good as we’d thought. That most had far less brains than brawn and that even the very best of them, namely Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, were the sort who delivered in moments of booming spectacle rather than sustained shrewdness and subtlety.
A period of intense self-examination followed: suddenly, English pundits were lauding Xabi Alonso and Claude Makelele as their sides’ “real” stars, grafters like Scott Parker were deemed unfashionable and England’s sidelining of Paul Scholes (who by his own admittance rarely played well for his country) was frowningly revised as symptomatic of everything wrong with the national game.
Having complacently ignored its failings for decades, England was suddenly starkly aware of them: the gormless obsession with blood, sweat and tears. Too much graft, too little craft.
That was 10 years ago, and in the leadup to last summer’s World Cup, you could be forgiven for thinking that little had changed. In the days before the squad was named, the main debate centred around whether Jonjo Shelvey – another loping midfielder in the muck-and-bruises mould – could solve the guile shortage.
After Southgate named his 23, the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor remarked that “England still hasn’t solved the problem of finding a natural playmaker, someone to take care of the ball the old-fashioned way”.
And, as well as England did in making it to the semi-finals, watching them being given the runaround in Moscow by a slick-passing Croatia side was a grim antidote to the national euphoria that had come before: for all the talk of progress, this was 2008 all over again.
Four months on, an unmistakable Englishness still defines Southgate’s midfield options: Jesse Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph are hard runners. Eric Dier, Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are all six-foot muscle men. So far, so British. Yet look a little closer and you’ll see that the picture is shifting.