Just before half-time in Copenhagen on Tuesday night Conor Coady could be heard shouting “Don’t get bored!” at his England teammates as they shuttled the ball across the face of Denmark’s deep defensive lines, keeping possession, waiting for an opening, trying, it turns out, not to get bored.
It seemed like an excellent piece of advice at the time. Albeit one that might have been better directed down the ring of pitch-side mics and into the ears of the watching TV audience, weighing up its continued engagement with a match that felt, for much of the 90 minutes, like being lulled into a waking doze by a group of slow-moving white shapes, while simultaneously having a sack of gravel syringed into your eyeballs.
England have produced more turgid performances than the 0-0 draw in Copenhagen, although not many and not by much. There are also mitigating circumstances on this occasion. The players are out of condition or jet-lagged between pre- and post-season. The off-field shenanigans of the past two weeks were described as “mayhem” by Gareth Southgate.
But this was a little different. This wasn’t Roy Hodgson’s England slowly throttling itself, or the grand talents of the Sven-Göran Eriksson era battling the limits of his four-square style.
This was willed boredom, boredom by design. England set out to be boring in Denmark, and successfully executed the game plan, starting the game with two right-backs, three centre-halves and two defensive midfielders – plus, in case of emergency, five more defensive players on the bench.
The most striking conclusion to be drawn from this is not that Southgate performed his job poorly across a dull double-header. But separately, that he seems to misunderstand what the fundamental point of his job actually is.
More of which later. The first of these is more easily dealt with. Are there signs of on-field development? It is hard to avoid the feeling that England have not progressed, that time has been wasted, that an enduring caution, a stodginess at the heart of the team is in danger of infecting the host body, of becoming a defining flaw.
In successive competitions England have performed well, then found their midfield overrun at the semi-final stage by more technically gifted opponents, better able to keep the ball, shift the angles, change the tempo.
Southgate might have chosen to spend the past two years trying to remedy this, to find a way of countering the lack of fluency in the centre. Instead he seems to be falling deeper into the same preoccupations.
Do England have the midfielders to add this extra gear, to go toe-to-toe with late-stage tournament opponents? Perhaps not. But with players such as Jack Grealish and James Maddison not trusted with the role, or simply not among the manager’s favourites, we may never really know for sure.
Instead we have this. “England ran out of ideas in Denmark,” the match report in L’Équipe suggested, but this isn’t quite right. England had one idea in Denmark. That idea was not to concede a goal, or at least to prevent Denmark from producing counterattacks – not just those that could be managed or covered, but any counterattacks at all.
There were two England shots on target in total. Declan Rice, one of five defensive players in the rump of the team, played 90 minutes, won one header, made one tackle and completed 32 passes. There is a statistical record of his presence, but no clear memory, no thematic sense.
The fear is that Southgate’s caution will betray the genuine attacking riches in this England generation. The manager remains a strange footballing personality, progressive in the way he carries himself, and radical and iconoclastic in his public statements; but with a streak of genuine conservatism in his tactical instincts.
The end result is that England seem to have gone slightly “cold product”, while other nations have pushed on. Belgium beat Iceland 5-1 on Tuesday night with four goalscorers. France staged a thrilling 4-2 comeback win against Croatia. Portugal scored six goals in their two games. Italy have a fine young tactically coherent group of players.
Meanwhile, on the Nordic circuit, England spent 180 minutes playing a kind of paranoia-football, to groans of frustration from those watching at home; at a time when football could and should be billing itself as a most agreeable distraction.
Which brings us back to the second point of concern. Who are the main rivals, the main threats to the England football team?
The answer to this question is not Belgium, France, or Scotland. It’s not the distant prospect of a Danish counterattack. The real threat to the continued success of England football is apathy, non-engagement, boredom, superior competing attractions.
England’s real rivals are Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and of course the entire Premier League, which will return on Saturday and duly scrub all thoughts of England from the frontal lobe.
On Wednesday the Football Association sent a tweet announcing in excitable tones the next opportunities to catch this evolving England team. Social media is a toxic mosh-pit at the best of times. But it isn’t hard to imagine the replies. This matters now. Like it or not international football is just another product for retail.
Don’t get bored. Find a way to win. By happy coincidence the answer to both of these aims is likely to come from the same place, with the need, above all, to throw off a little of that native caution. The real question is whether Southgate is willing, and, indeed, able to embrace it.