It was familiar heartbreak once again for England and their fans as Gareth Southgate’s men fell to reigning World Champions France in the last Quarter-final in Qatar on Saturday. The Three Lions entered the match having not really been stretched too much so far during the tournament, whereas the a heavily-rotated French team had suffered defeat to Tunisia in a somewhat meaningless final Group game and had endured a few tricky moments in bypassing Poland in the Round of 16, until Kylian Mbappé put them decisively ahead late on.
England XI: Jordan Pickford; Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw; Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham; Bukayo Saka, Harry Kane, Phil Foden.
Unsurprisingly, Southgate opted to remain faithful to the side that had defeated Senegal last time out. I’d feared his natural caution would reassert itself when faced with truly dangerous opponents, but he held his nerve and stuck to the 4-3-3 formation.
France XI: Hugo Lloris; Jules Koundé, Raphaël Varane, Dayo Upamecano, Theo Hernandez; Aurélien Tchouameni, Adrien Rabiot; Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Olivier Giroud.
Similarly, Didier Deschamps stuck with the same eleven that had won 3-1 against Poland, though the French boss had less viable options to change things up than did Southgate.
As they had against Senegal, England started the game in subdued fashion, playing at a slow tempo with no real indication as to a pattern of play. The French quickly assumed a measure of control, with Antoine Griezmann in particular using his clever movement to pick up the ball in space. The Atletico Madrid player was heavily involved in the first move of note, linking up well with Ousmane Dembélé, who fed Aurélien Tchouameni to strike a long-range effort past a despairing Jordan Pickford in the 17th minute.
The Everton goalkeeper was well-beaten but probably saw the shot late as it went through Bellingham’s legs. In what was a poorly refereed match by the official, Brazil’s Wilton Sampaio, a foul by Dayo Upamecano on Bukayo Saka was missed in the lead up to the opener, giving England some cause for complaint.
England responded well after falling behind, the shock seemingly shifting them out of their torpor and they took the game to France, who ceded ground when perhaps they could have exerted more control. The Three Lions didn’t create any clear chances, but Saka and to a lesser extent Bellingham were causing Les Bleus some problems.
There was a decent shout for a penalty as the overly-rash Upermecano brought down Harry Kane on the edge of the box, but the referee could not ignore Tchouameni’s blatant foul on Saka after the restart, which Kane powered home from the spot. England had started the second half well and they were clearly getting the better of a closely-contested game by now. France’s talisman, Mbappé had been almost completely neutered by Southgate’s game plan and the 2018 World Cup winners were reduced to soaking up pressure and looking for the occasional break, such as that produced by Rabiot immediately after the game was levelled.
England were playing well and there was little need to change things up until they were hit with a devastating blow with less than a quarter-hour remaining. Two minutes earlier the largely isolated Giroud had forced a smart save from Pickford after somehow finding himself in acres of space eight yards from goal, but in the 77th minute the big AC Milan striker powered a header home in commanding fashion from Griezmann’s delivery, leaving England distraught. It was time for a Plan B but Southgate made like-for-like subs, retaining the team’s shape and bringing on Mason Mount for Henderson and Sterling for the influential Saka; the French would have been relieved to see the Arsenal winger withdrawn.
More urgency and directness was required, as the Netherlands had demonstrated in fighting back from a two goal deficit against Argentina, but England had no real target men to bring on, only Callum Wilson, who remained on the bench throughout. They quickly found a path back into the match in the 84th minute, when Hernandez needlessly barged into Mount, but Kane blasted the resulting penalty over the bar, crushing English hopes. A last second free kick from substitute Marcus Rashford was put narrowly over and that was that, the Three Lions were heading for the plane home.
Once again, England have fallen short and scapegoats will be looked for.
- Kane taking a second penalty was not ideal, but who else on the pitch is a regular spot-kick taker?
- Southgate cannot be targeted for an excess of caution this time around: while it is true that the team failed to carve out any really big chances, they managed 12 efforts against a high-class team that largely sat back, hitting the target five times (not including penalties). The French took only eight shots, but enjoyed clearer opportunities. Those high xG (Expected Goals) chances the French had proved decisive.
- Not taking either (or both) Brentford’s Ivan Toney and AS Roma’s Tammy Abraham to Qatar turned out to be a mistake. Both would have given Southgate more options if chasing a game, which surely has to be planned for in a tournament. Instead of those two aerially powerful strikers, the boss had only an assortment of players that require space to run into. Faced with a low block and a packed defence this was insufficient.
- Retaining the 4-3-3 after Giroud’s goal was an error. True, England had been playing well up to that point, but this was the time to try something different. Throwing on Wilson alongside Kane would have a least given the team more presence in the box, even if the Newcastle United striker is not a target man.
- Rashford’s last-gasp free kick was a good effort, but I’d have much preferred seeing James Maddison, or even Kieran Trippier taking it. Maybe even Trent Alexander-Arnold. Entering eight minutes of added time, Southgate could have thrown any of those players on for the quality of their delivery, in open-play or from set-piece situations. Why Maddison was brought to Qatar is a mystery, as it was apparent right from the off that he would not play; this was a waste of a squad place.