England manager Gareth Southgate will return from Copenhagen having arguably learned more off the pitch than on it after the resumption of the Nations League.
Coming in the wake of the in-out hokey-cokey selection then withdrawal of Manchester United captain Harry Maguire – who was given a suspended prison sentence following an incident in Greece after initially being picked for these two games – this has been an eventful international break in the wrong way.
Southgate must take a large share of the responsibility for the events, or more precisely non-events, in Denmark that led to a sterile stalemate in the largely deserted Parken Stadion.
England’s ultra-cautious approach, three central defenders and two holding midfield players in debutant Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, did much to withdraw any hint of menace from Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Jadon Sancho, although the latter in particular was very disappointing.
Southgate’s conservatism might have been more understandable had England been confronting opponents such as Belgium, who they face at Wembley on 11 October, with all their firepower but it was difficult to detect what threat Denmark posed that required such a negative, protective system to deal with it.
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England’s manager – with his players for the first time in almost a year because of the global coronavirus pandemic – can point to the fact it was perhaps a tactical fact-finding mission in the throes of pre-season with players still lacking match sharpness. But it was still mystifying to see such a cautious game-plan given Southgate’s attacking resources.
Southgate was missing Maguire and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson so there was a definite element of mitigating circumstances but the lack of ambition in England’s set-up and general approach was startling.
It was a game that appeared to cry out for the creativity of Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish but there were only 14 minutes left when he got his long-awaited debut, hardly time to make a major contribution.
It came after another largely dreary win in Iceland, salvaged by Sterling’s late penalty although the hosts missed one of their own even deeper into injury time.
England simply never got going as an attacking force in either game although there were plus points in two clean sheets, especially satisfying for goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, under pressure amid poor form at Everton but steady in both games, making a crucial save from Kasper Dolberg here.
It was a good break for Wolverhampton Wanderers captain Conor Coady, who made a very assured (not to mention very vocal) England debut, taking responsibility for marshalling his new England colleagues and creating an all-round good impression.
England looked unbalanced without a left-footed player, with Chelsea’s new £50m left-back Ben Chilwell injured, although Kieran Trippier was his usual professional, diligent self.
Southgate must digest all these problems before the next round of games against Wales and Belgium while also deciding on the fate of errant duo Foden and Greenwood, the irony being this was the sort of game that looked perfect for the sort of youthful drive and invention they could have provided had it not been for their own crass stupidity.
England, and Southgate will know this, simply must produce better, be more positive and show more ambition when they get together again.
He will hope to have a stronger England squad to choose from next time they assemble, although it will be a surprise if Foden and Greenwood are part of that given the current Football Association investigation into their behaviour in Iceland that may well lead to some sort of sanction.
If Southgate had not learned too much on the pitch, it is to be hoped two such talented players who have the ability to be part of England’s future for years to come have learned off it.
While not suggesting Southgate should throw caution to the wind, England have the attacking weaponry to take the game to the opposition with far more conviction than they showed here in Denmark, where they seemed reluctant to let themselves go in the face of a home side that were hardly swarming all over them.
It is early days, pre-season effectively with the Premier League starting again on Saturday, but this was dismal, disappointing fare and coupled with events off the pitch has made it a distracted and unsatisfactory England break.