Grealish, Foden and Saka offer Anglo tiki-taka that Southgate can build on

An unloved, insignificant occasion still provided a glimpse of the strengths England should play to rather than rein in

With a quarter of the game gone at Wembley Stadium the number of variables, the list of things that could still happen in this match, had already narrowed to a fine point. Would Jack Grealish do something wild and gif-able with the ball?

Would Harry Kane score a goal (this appeared to be the sole question running through Kane’s own mind for much of the game)? Would a strange mist of lassitude descend over Wembley and cause everyone simply to lie down and stop?

There may have been weirder, more deathly England football occasions than this. But not many. And none that spring to mind. On a day of national plague lockdown, in a grey bowl ringed by empty concrete walkways, the tired and travel-worn players of England and Iceland lined up to see out a broadcast obligation.

The occasion would require them to run for 90 minutes and conjure from a standing start a competitive football match. To their credit they did both of these things willingly and with no dip in effort. Although at times, frankly, it was touch and go with the latter as England ran out 4-0 winners in a deeply one-sided game.

What did we learn? What can Gareth Southgate “take” from an odd occasion at the end of a strange year, to give him fuel for the next round of games four months from now?

There is a slight sense of muddle around this chop-and-change England team right now. Is Southgate showing resolve and boldness by muddling with his formations and seeking some new, more secure shape? Or is he overthinking the task?

For this dead game Southgate pressed his foot cautiously to the floor. This was fun, jaunty England, with a starting XI containing six, rather than seven, defensive players, more obviously attacking tones in the wing-backs, and Mason Mount alongside Declan Rice in midfield.

Best of all we got a sight of both Phil Foden and Grealish in the attacking midfield, a pairing of England’s cleverest ball-playing creative types.

It was here that the game’s best – or rather, only good – moments came. And here that another question of tone and tempo seemed to raise itself.

It took a while, though. Iceland sat deep in a blue-shirted knot. Erik Hamren is known as a “progressive” manager. He cuts an elegant dash with his Victorian bounder-style scarf and hair combination. But this has been a failed tenure, with six defeats in the last seven games and a parting of the ways after this match. The blue shirts ran eagerly but without direction. They hurled themselves into tackles. At times it looked a bit like playing Iceland in 1975.

England scored on 20 minutes with their first effort on target. A whipped free-kick from Foden was headed in nicely by Rice. Four minutes later it was two, Mount finishing well after a mess in the Iceland area.

With half an hour gone England had taken 82% of possession. Iceland had completed 32 passes. The game, the entire occasion, had turned from grey to deeper grey.

England v Iceland
Phil Foden makes it 4-0 to cap a promising display from England’s younger talents. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

But football is a resilient thing and even in this dead zone there was a genuine pleasure to be had in the interplay between the slick trio of Grealish, Foden and Bukayo Saka.

It felt noteworthy, too. England lacked this kind of player for so long, those whose real skill is in taking the ball, spinning, dribbling, controlling the rhythms. Here they had more of them on the pitch than at any recent time in their modern history.

At times the passing axis of Grealish-Foden-Saka-Mount resembled a kind of Anglo tiki-taka, zipping the ball about between the more cumbersome Nordics, all 360 vision and velcro touches.

Fittingly the game ended with two fine goals for Foden to make it 4-0. His second, a jink, a skip, a look up and a shot drilled into the corner, was a thing of beauty. This is the kind of player to accommodate, to find a shape for. But then, how does the manager actually want this team to play?

For a while last year England were all about speed, and prolifically so. Their quicker attackers have been missing. In their absence there was a vision here of a quick-passing , intricate England, one that might have gone a little more toe-to-toe in that first half in Leuven against Belgium had the double midfield bolt in front of the triple defensive bolt been loosened a little.

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Instead Southgate has a vision of winning games against the better opponents by the odd goal, of his own team becoming deeply layered and impregnable. It is a sensible plan. But this kind of thing tends to happen as part of a wider process, by grooving your best team, by in-tournament discipline, rather than by setting up a year in advance to play that way.

This is perhaps what Southgate can take from a drab Nations League campaign. England were commendably energetic here, and commendably intense. But then, these are their best qualities, just as the current bloom of attacking talent is what will ultimately carry this team, not the quality of its defensive parts.

The manager might do well to remember that between now and March.


Barney Ronay at Wembley

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