AS good a result as England’s draw in Munich was, it still necessitates Gareth Southgate’s men to beat Italy at Molineux this weekend if they are to have any hope of topping their Nations League group. This is problematic given that the Azzurri have lost only three times since the autumn of 2018, a protracted run that takes in 47 games.
It only gets worse before it gets better too, when assessing the chances of Kane and co to emerge victorious in the Midlands. Italy have historically been a tough nut for England to crack, as evidenced by just two triumphs in their last 15 encounters and so many of these games adhered to stereotypes, with the Three Lions roaring to little avail, while their ever-disciplined opponents waited for the most opportune moment to offer up a sucker-punch.
This brings us to another concern, because if the hosts are in great need of the three points, the visitors are not, aware that a draw would keep them firmly in the group reckoning, and Roberto Mancini’s side have repeatedly shown in recent years they are extremely good at finding ways to achieve their goals. This we saw in the Euro 2020 Final last summer, where England started brightly and took an early lead, but Italy refused to panic. They grew into the game and waited patiently for their chances to come, knowing that as the contest wore on nerves would increasingly infiltrate the home crowd. It was a professional job. An Italian job.
That Euro final will be much referenced in the days ahead, with talk of revenge in the air, but it’s far more interesting and relevant to focus on what has happened since to both sides.
Two months after trudging off the Wembley turf as losing finalists, England resumed a thoroughly straightforward World Cup qualifying campaign that had them take out their frustrations on minnows such as San Marino and Andorra. In ten unbeaten fixtures they racked up an astonishing 3.9 goals-per-game keeping clean sheets on seven occasions.
Yet, as much as this cleansed the palette, can such routine dismissals of inferior fare be considered helpful to a team’s evolution? This past week, Southgate’s side have hugely disappointed against Hungary and put in a decidedly mixed display in Germany and even if fatigue is unquestionably an issue right now, can it be reasoned that England have taken any significant steps forward twelve months on from that momentous evening in London? Rather, they seem to be in stasis, the same side they were back then, which is no bad thing for the most part but only for the most part. They are still horribly risk-adverse under a conservative coach. They are still too reliant on Harry Kane to get them out of trouble with a well-poached goal. They still deploy a double-pivot in the middle, a strategy that makes them somewhat predictable and from this, they still get out-played whenever they encounter a side with a clever midfield. And Italy’s midfield is clever.
By way of contrast, their adversaries this Saturday went into last year’s Euros on a sustained high, having put together a phenomenal run of results built on a phenomenal defence. Italy’s extra-time concession to Austria in their last-16 clash was the first time they had been breached for over 19 hours.
Only it all seemed to unravel a little bit post-tournament, first with a loss to Spain, followed by the famous defeat at the hands of North Macedonia that denied them entry to this year’s World Cup and with Mancini under pressure it looked for a short period like he might walk.
To the super-suave Italian’s enormous credit however, he responded well, recognizing that his winning formula had grown a touch stale. That a refresh was in order. “We need to start again with a new cycle. We will certainly introduce younger players in June for the Nations League,” he said last March.
And this he has done. His team that faced Germany last weekend contained only one player who started last year’s final – goalkeeper Donnarumma – and featured a midfield three with an average age of 23. Against Hungary three days later Mancini leaned even more on youth, giving a full debut to the immensely exciting teen Wilfried Gnonto and don’t be surprised if the Zurich winger gives England the run-around like Germany’s young prodigy Jamal Musiala threatened to this week.
Okay, enough with the negatives. As alluded to earlier, there are ample causes for encouragement when assessing England’s chances of securing a necessary win, not least in the reliable prolificacy of Kane. The Tottenham forward’s latest international strike was naturally heralded as his 50th for his country but it also means he has scored 16 in 14 now, a remarkable return.
An eye-catching cameo by Jack Grealish meanwhile might just prompt Southgate to loosen his tie a little and start the £100m creative, especially as Mason Mount’s season-long race looks run. A flash or two of inspiration shown by Jarrod Bowen late-on against Germany also hints at a possible source for joy against an Italian side in the process of reinvention.
Ultimately though, all this may not be enough.