16 Conclusions on Kane, Saka, Southgate, Maguire
England suffered a familiar tournament fate, but a completely different feeling. The margins have rarely been so fine. And Bukayo Saka was utterly brilliant.
1) Following England for almost two and a half decades ought to numb a person to eventual disappointment and despair. But we all know that’s not how it works. It’s the hope that kills you and those who have worn the Three Lions on their chest at any stage of their lives have experienced every possible sort of sporting death now.
The sharp stab of penalties was felt in 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006, 2012 and 2021. The long-drawn-out bleed of being by far the inferior team hanging on until the bitter but inescapable end came in 2002 and 2018. The ruthless execution at the hands of a considerably greater squad made the exit of 2010 no easier to stomach. The less said about the slow stumble and collapse of 2016, the better.
But 2022 feels different. There was a pride in watching England fall on their sword, a comfort in knowing they had represented the country to the absolute best of their ability. The regrets are superficial, even forced in the inevitable search for an explanation of something so often beyond reason. Football is chaos, the margins are infinitesimal and when there is a winner, a loser must follow.
This writer is not ashamed (OK, maybe a little…) in saying he teared up ever so slightly just before Marcus Rashford measured that free-kick to equalise in the final seconds, emotional at the mere thought of England finally receiving a reward they had actually earned: another half an hour of standing toe to toe with an actual giant of the game on the world stage. Having a six-month-old baby will do that to you. But so will following a genuinely likeable England squad full of phenomenal players and managed by an affable manager, all of whom have done the country so incredibly proud.
2) There will, of course, be the naysayers and critics who saw England falling at their first actual hurdle and losing as soon as they faced a proper challenge. That tiresome ‘typical England’ talk was covered before the quarter-final but is always worth dismantling.
England had double the shots of, more possession than and as many dribbles as the reigning champions in the quarter-final of a World Cup, coming from behind once to equalise and within a couple of inches of subsequently taking the lead.
They did not win but good lord did they compete. That is the only thing so many have demanded from the national team for years, if not decades: a team which can hold its own against the best and brightest when it matters. England did that and showed they should be capable of the same for a few tournaments to come.
3) How many of those Gareth Southgate remains in charge for is unknown. His contract runs until the end of Euro 2024 but when asked after the game – and it should be noted that the immediate aftermath a bitter defeat is never a great time to question someone on such matters – England’s manager said “that needs a bit of time”.
With the names of Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino floating around, fluttering their eyelashes suggestively at the FA, it is always worth considering the avenues available rather than simply favouring some archaic notion of loyalty to a coach who has admittedly done a superb job, honouring his contract. If England think they can do better in the dugout then they need to be ruthless; and there absolutely are better coaches out there, attached or otherwise.
But it would be impossible to find a manager more connected with these players and attuned to their needs. England landed on their feet with Southgate after years spent cascading down the mountain they once felt they had climbed towards the top of. He has taken them as close to that summit as anyone in the last six decades and the evolution of England in terms of tactics and confidence from the 2018 World Cup, through the Euros and to Qatar has been astonishing.
Things might change and Southgate himself might feel different – perhaps the lure of the club game will prove irresistible soon – but this arrangement undoubtedly works and the sense lingers that there is still more they can achieve together.
4) Southgate’s reputation as a safety-first, unambitious, defensive coach was torn to shreds before kick-off.
Consider if, before the tournament, you had been told that England – the highest scorers by that stage – would not deploy a three-man central defence against France and Golden Boot favourite Kylian Mbappe in the quarter-final. It would have been a ludicrous thought; Southgate has relied on the system so heavily in the past it was used against Panama four years ago, never mind in a major final and on most of the route there.
Any temptation to grab at that comforter was resisted. England not only retained the formation from their previous game, they kept the whole starting line-up. Southgate spoke in his pre-match interview half an hour or so before kick-off about how “you can lose a player with some back three systems”, adding that there was a desire from him to “get a player up the pitch in terms of our attacking play”.
It was decisive, bold, courageous and in complete contrast to his caricatured perception. So much of the build-up was about France’s sensational forwards and how England could possibly counter them; that team selection spun the question back on its head.
5) Most of the preview talk concerned that battle on England’s right between Kyle Walker and Kylian Mbappe. Far be it for anyone but the man himself to speculate on what that did to the mindset of the Manchester City defender.
With that said, he seemed fairly fired up. Straight from kick-off, Antoine Griezmann played the ball back to Aurelien Tchouameni, who immediately searched for Mbappe with a wide ball towards the left wing. Walker sprang into action with an interception so forceful it popped the ball and required a substitute to be sourced within the opening 10 seconds.
Walker would maintain something close to that intensity, if not the upper hand.
6) Mbappe was the winner of the bout on points, with Walker so wary of the threat that he – with the help of at least one but often two and even sometimes three teammates – rarely left himself open to a knockout punch. The France forward ended the game having had a solitary shot: his tally in the previous four games at this tournament was seven, six, three and five.
But it was a resounding enough victory, even leaving the overall result behind. One poor Walker header was recycled into a cross by Mbappe which Olivier Giroud flung a scorpion kick at. Walker then wandered into central midfield before having to be reminded by the England coaching staff that his manager isn’t bald. The 32-year-old did put a clean tackle in on Mbappe after Jude Bellingham carelessly gave the ball away in midfield but one moment in the second half settled it. Mbappe collected the ball in his own half and played with his food, stopping and starting before suddenly turning on The Afterburners to burst past his adversary and put in a dangerous cross.
Walker fared well enough but might not be too eager for a rematch.
7) But the Mbappe stuff in the build-up was always overplayed. Not quite a smokescreen – he’s far too good for that – but certainly a case of elite-level Whac-A-Mole. England knew they could not afford to concentrate solely on France’s most prodigious player, considering the sheer level of talent popping up throughout the rest of the team.
Some other direct match-ups started to emerge, such as Ousmane Dembele’s early dominance over Luke Shaw and Bellingham against Griezmann in an even tussle. But naturally it came back to Kyle versus Kylian in some way.
After committing to an England attack which came to nothing, Walker had to race back to assist in putting out the Mbappe counter-attack fire. Fun as it was to watch Jordan Henderson do his best impression of a wary velociraptor trainer from Jurassic Park, he needed the support. Yet Mbappe still wriggled free and France moved the ball from left to right and back into the centre, Griezmann squaring for Tchouameni to find the bottom corner with a stunning shot.
Being critical, England left too much space in midfield and were too attentive to the dual threats out wide. Tchouameni capitalised on that brief moment and extra couple of yards, which is essentially all England’s early deficit came down to. One lapse at this level and the foothold slips.
READ MORE: England 1-2 France: Rating the players as Three Lions bow out of World Cup
8) The forlorn slide tackle from Declan Rice was particularly sad, the West Ham midfielder bouncing off Mbappe as the France forward advanced. That was one of Rice’s two mistakes, the other being a mistimed header directly after England’s equaliser.
There was praise for Rice’s first-half performance, which was difficult to understand as while he was typically tidy on the ball, he offered little else at either end. But in the second half he was absolutely phenomenal, specifically in countering the excellence of Griezmann by snapping into earlier tackles and thus not letting the 31-year-old turn on the ball.
Having had far too much of an influence up until half-time, it was telling that Griezmann’s only action of note thereafter – his exemplary delivery for the winner – came when he stayed in position and waited for the ball to be returned to him from a cleared France corner. It was the only time Rice (understandably) gave him room to breathe, with Griezmann presumably pretty light-headed at the oxygen he was afforded in the opening 45 minutes.
9) In the 40th minute came a move which resulted in neither a shot nor even a chance, but it did underline the progress England have made. Henderson, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden – who had drifted to the right from the left-hand side, having been fairly ineffective – played some neat passes around and between the pressing French defenders, before Bellingham found space in the area with a darting run.
It was cut back and eventually crossed for Harry Kane at the back post before fizzling out but seeing England players actually embrace and not cower from the ball while a goal down against that standard of opposition was disconcerting. And watching England grow into a match instead of starting well, fading and soon being overrun was refreshing. That shift in mentality, from inadequacy to belief, is tangible.
10) No player epitomised that more than Saka, who produced a seminal display as the game’s best player. Perhaps the pundits and tabloids in France had obsessed over how Theo Hernandez was going to stifle the Arsenal forward but it was clear that Didier Deschamps had earmarked Saka as the point of danger.
Saka was fouled more than any player on either side – and the four free-kicks he won were at least two or three short of a deserved number which did not include a rough Dayot Upamecano challenge shortly before France’s opening goal.
It became a theme. Saka would receive the ball and dribble at the opposition defence with purpose and speed. Griezmann, Hernandez, Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot all fouled the 21-year-old, who often forced those mistakes in decisive positions: one instance earned the penalty from which England equalised and another won a free-kick which Harry Maguire headed against the post.
There was a stage at the start of the second half when Saka seemed to be playing with the wind behind him and France were absolutely terrified. It was wing play so glorious and engendering such confidence that on the hour mark, with England firmly in the ascendancy, Saka drifted central into the No.10 slot, drove into a gap at the heart of the France defence and conjured a save from Hugo Lloris.
Tactical versatility. Decisive excellence. Maturity. Diligent defensive work – only Bellingham (five) made more tackles. Arsenal call Saka their Starboy for a reason. And now the whole world has seen it first hand.
11) It painfully does not come without a caveat to suggest Kane was among England’s other better players. The defence held firm until it didn’t, the midfielders were a credit to themselves – particularly Henderson – but equally faltered in those crucial moments when France established their leads, and Foden had two brief exciting spells early in either half, outside of which he struggled.
Kane led by example, forcing Lloris into his first proper save and then turning Upamecano to open football’s first Schrodinger’s penalty/free-kick. It was definitely a foul, albeit not given, then VAR could not intervene as it was adjudged to be outside the area.
Not be deterred, Kane almost scored with a deflected effort, before converting his first penalty confidently. His hold-up play was characteristically excellent, he won fouls when necessary and he dropped deep to incredible effect. But that second spot-kick will live longer than he would care to imagine in the memory.
An excellent centre-forward display will be never provide any consolation, but them’s the breaks; he’s a proper England captain now.
12) Pickford was brilliant again. His saves were pretty good, one from Rabiot as the France midfielder inexplicably sauntered clear straight after England made it 1-1, then another as Giroud found himself unmarked in the area about a minute before the same player scored the winner.
The Everton keeper’s distribution was pinpoint, so often finding the head of Kane or Bellingham with his long kicks and engaging in the short passes around the England defence.
But his best bit was bellowing “CALM” at the top of his beautiful Mackem lungs after keeping out a simple Giroud header. The constant affront at having to do his job is always a delight.
Pickford might keep that constant strive for perfection in assessing the two goals, for which his role has come into question. But he saw an powerful and accurate Tchouameni hit late, while Giroud’s header took a deflection and the save which preceded it and conceded the corner was necessary rather than for the cameras.
For perhaps the first time in his tenure, Southgate will trust Pickford more than any other player after this tournament.
13) That thin line between hero and villain is bestrode by Maguire more masterfully than anyone. His partnership with John Stones was again almost without any real fault, but the eventual blot pretty much ruined the copybook. Both were culpable in letting Giroud roam the penalty area freely twice in the space of about a minute.
The regret was double for Maguire, who inadvertently diverted Giroud’s header past Pickford shortly after grazing the post with an effort at the other end. It was on those margins that the centre-half’s status as cult icon and England saviour could have been built: from debatable squad inclusion to quarter-final hero.
As it is, this ought to be his last tournament. He was great and considerably better than those who derided his call-up expected, but fundamentally England conceded three goals at this World Cup and he was responsible for two of them. Maguire’s strengths don’t quite outweigh his negatives enough for the path of potential defensive successors to continue to be blocked.
14) All the way through the substitutions, England and France could have played that game out 10 more times and had a different outcome on each occasion.
The former did not create a huge amount but still won two penalties, hit the post, were kept out by a couple of fine saves and must have been celebrating when Shaw’s low cross almost reached Saka at the back post, only for Hernandez to defend well.
The latter were a little more proficient in attack but they experienced long periods out of control and nearly paid for their passivity. There was so little between the two teams.
And while discussing substitutions after a game is often outcome bias at its worst, that is where the match could have shifted. Southgate introduced Mason Mount, who soon won a penalty, while that final free-kick fell to the feet of Rashford 10 minutes after he came on. He and Jack Grealish could have been used earlier – and, perhaps in the circumstances, Raheem Sterling not at all – but the direction of the game meant those calls were tough to make.
But the most difficult pill for England to swallow may be the revelation that Deschamps was preparing to replace Giroud with Marcus Thuram in the moments before the AC Milan striker scored. The France manager’s only change ended up being Coman off for Kingsley Coman, who conceded that late free-kick with a foul on Maguire.
That is how different things could have been, how close this tie was. How close England made it.
15) It is an unsavoury and frankly childish practice to overemphasise the role of a referee in the result of a game. Across 90 minutes plus stoppages, both sets of players involved have enough time and opportunity to render any perceived officiating bias moot. The decisions of a referee have an obvious influence but only to an extent; the rest is on the teams.
Credit to Southgate for being sensible enough to respect that.
Gareth Southgate: “We’ve lost a game. I shouldn”t be speaking about referees. I just want to compliment France and wish them well – congratulations. It’s not right when you lose to talk about referees”
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) December 10, 2022
The risible microscope that has been placed on referees over the past decade or so has led to the analysis of brilliant games being entirely derailed as pundits fall over themselves to criticise the one person supporters did not pay to see, with broadcasters hastily chopping the fury up to post on social media for quick, cheap engagement. The fruit hangs so low it is lying on the ground, rotting but still deemed juicy enough to pick every single week to appeal to the worst subsection of the sport’s audience.
That uber focus, the poring over of slow-motion replays and constant demand for absolute perfection, brought VAR into this world. And how surprising it remains that still the arguments rage on, only through different screens and repeated frames.
Things have reached such an absurd stage that both Argentina and Netherlands players felt comfortable openly accusing the referee of blatant bias after their World Cup quarter-final; the paranoia, persecution complex and conspiracy theories are real and regrettable.
Having said all that, this officiating team was atrocious and actively detrimental to the match. They aided the targeting of Saka through non-punishment, generally sacrificed the laws of the game for The Flow of it and the referee had to actually be reminded by one of the players that he perhaps ought to caution someone for a bookable offence at one point.
England retained control of their fate at all times but when so many objectively bad calls are made by a beacon of neutrality – and those decisions were not at all down to favouritism, only incompetence, pressure, human error and confusing rules – it can sometimes be difficult to point the finger elsewhere.
Wilton Sampaio joins Kim Milton Nielsen and Urs Meier as referees who will be held at least partially responsible by many for England’s ultimate demise at a major international tournament. And it was a woeful performance. But he did not miss a penalty, nor leave Giroud unmarked at the front post. Introspection is always better than incrimination and enough energy has already been wasted on the latter. Maybe stick with just changing his Wikipedia page instead of publishing someone’s personal details and encouraging death threats this time though.
16) That last-minute free-kick should obviously have been Weghorst’d. There’d have been tears then.