As the minutes counted down in Wroclaw, the prospect of an England win dwindled, not only because of the amount of time remaining but also because of the personnel left on the field.
Jude Bellingham, James Maddison and Bukayo Saka, England’s three most creative players other than Harry Kane, had departed and the midfield which ended the match comprised Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Conor Gallagher, which did not scream ‘last minute winner coming up’.
And that is absolutely fine. It was a qualification match, a difficult ‘away’ game (forget the neutral venue, this was a passionate, vociferous Ukrainian crowd) and England had fallen behind in the first half. It was a good point to claim.
Ukraine 1 England 1: Pedestrian pace, quarterback Kane, Henderson struggles
They came into this match with a 100 per cent record in Group C and had not given away a shot on target, let alone a goal, in their previous three games. They had beaten Italy away to take control of the group in their first game and now two of their final three matches are against Malta at home and North Macedonia away. They will qualify for the Euros, and easily.
But while England not beating Ukraine here does not create a problem in terms of qualification – and as Southgate rightly pointed out they have earned four points away from home to Italy and Ukraine, a good achievement – some of the issues they encountered did feel indicative of wider problems they may face in the Euros.
England’s players are progressing. In the past couple of months three of them – Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane and Declan Rice – have made big upwards career moves to Champions League contenders in Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Arsenal.
James Maddison has moved up a level from Leicester to Spurs, while even newbie Levi Colwill has moved up in terms of playing regularly for a big club with lofty expectations at Chelsea (even if he has moved down the league table after his successful loan at Brighton).
The majority of England’s team are playing their club football for big, dynamic teams competing for the biggest prizes and Bellingham, Rice and Kane can now be added to the Manchester City and Liverpool players in the group like Kyle Walker, John Stones, Trent Alexander-Arnold etc who are playing for or who have won league titles or Champions Leagues.
The dynamics of the group are changing and Southgate may have to adapt and evolve with them, rather than just managing them in what has clearly been a very competent way when they were younger and less experienced.
Nights like this one in Wroclaw won’t help. England were stodgy in attack, they lacked dynamism, they had the occasional moment of inspiration like Kane’s exquisite pass for Kyle Walker’s goal, or Bukayo Saka sauntering inside to hit the crossbar, but otherwise England were tepid and sluggish going forward, despite dominating the ball. It was arguably their worst performance for more than a year, stretching back to the June 2022 Nations League horror show against Hungary.
Perhaps it is harsh and churlish to call them out and demand more from Southgate… it’s just that we can all see it coming; England get through their Euros group pretty comfortably, progress to the quarter or semi-finals, playing pretty well but failing to dominate in the final third, conceding a sloppy goal or two and exiting to a slightly better team. Another case of what might have been.
To achieve their goals they will need to reach a level they haven’t managed before under Southgate. In that regard players moving to bigger clubs may help England – they will be training with better players, competing regularly for honours, learning what it takes to win the most intense, high profile matches – or it may take England back to the superstar era of the 2000s when divisions formed, expectations were impossibly high and they didn’t have a manager to meet them. Expectations will certainly raise when Bellingham and Kane are thriving at Real and Bayern, and when Rice, Maddison, Saka, John Stones et al are surely enjoying big seasons for their big clubs too.
The question that lingers is – are these players in the process of outgrowing Southgate?
There is not much arguing with his record to date – he’s one of the most successful managers in England’s history in terms of his tournament results – but it is time for more now.
“Clearly most of our attacking play wasn’t at the level we would have hoped it to be,” Southgate said. “But I thought given the circumstances and the importance of the point in terms of qualification, coming from behind when the crowd are then full and the opposition have something to hang onto, it’s a very important point for us.
“The reality is we’re not going to win every game by four and seven goals as we have in this campaign. That was a really good test away from home, very passionate atmosphere, quite a few changes forced from the last game and people like Marc Guehi, for instance, a first experience of a game like that with England which he came through really strongly.
“It’s good to go through experiences like that, you’ve got James (Maddison) who would be one who won’t have played in an England game like that in the past, Marc, Chillwell won’t have done for us either. The only way for us to learn and grow as a team is to have those experiences, to go behind in a game like that is a challenge but we stayed calm.
“Without a doubt, to go through that, is good learning for several of the players. On a night like this the experienced players were really important for the team and they did a very good job.”
Again, you cannot argue with that, particularly in the case of Guehi, who, given the dearth of centre-back alternatives could quite easily find himself in England’s XI at the Euros in Germany next summer. After a timid start he did well and he has the attributes to kick on.
But learning to cope with hostile atmospheres is one thing, raising the team’s performances by a level in order to give them a realistic probability of becoming the best team in Europe is quite another. Do England feel on the verge of doing that right now? No. But that does not mean they are incapable of doing so.
Southgate is extremely likeable. He is a fine ambassador for his country, he speaks incredibly articulately and with intelligence and calm. He’s also proven adept at creating a cohesive, positive culture around ‘England FC’ and has made the national team popular again.
That cycle is almost at end. The patience and goodwill, the lower expectations, they’re pretty much done with. It feels like England now expects again.
So while Southgate is still all those nice things and has done a tremendous and sometimes under-appreciated job, is he now capable of matching those increased expectations?
Can he coach players from Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United into a unit capable of playing attractive, winning football while maintaining a solid defence? Can he guide England to the trophy they have waited so long for?
This is his test. It is by far his biggest one yet – and more proof is needed that he and England can succeed.
(Top photo: Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)