OK, win the opening game. Let’s top the group and play Portugal next, a nation England haven’t beaten in a proper match since 1966. Harry Kane? Two England goals in his past 10. Plus it’s probably going to rain on Friday.
The Stoics of ancient Greece had a practice known now as “negative visualisation”. This involved thinking about the worst things that might possibly happen, preparing yourself for a balanced approach to the coming obstacles by ramping up the bad vibes and generally taking it one doomed day at a time.
In the wake of England’s jarringly smooth, oddly edge-free 1-0 win against Croatia this feels like a sensible approach. First for obvious reasons of damping down the only other feasible option – gurning triumphalism, Gareth wigs, Tyrone Mings chest tattoos, and the inevitable crossbar-stealing defeat at the hands of Scotland on Friday night. And secondly because there is a danger such a convincing start can obscure the areas that still need polishing: most obviously the attack, and the strange sense of entropy around Kane.
First, though, the good bits. England don’t generally beat good teams at tournaments. And while Croatia didn’t look like a good team at Wembley, run into the ground by England’s high-pressure midfield, flustered by the skill and intensity of Kalvin Phillips, they are still World Cup finalists with a Ballon d’Or winner in their ranks.
England were neat on the ball and physically dominant. Every tactical gambit, from the right-back at left-back to the clear‑headed faith in England‑model Raheem Sterling paid off handsomely. With the result in the balance Southgate even had the confidence to bring on a 17-year-old Bundesliga player to replace his star, captain and chief goalscorer.
Those who accuse England’s manager of being risk-averse have a limited view of what risks really are. Cavalier football is one thing. Trusting youth, promoting talent, sending the proper England football man playbook windmilling out of the window, moustaches and devil’s horns doodled across its pages. This is quietly revolutionary stuff.
And yet there is still much to be gained by taking the stoic approach, by focusing instead on the negatives. As Southgate knows better than anyone, this is still a tournament team being thrown together on the hoof. The most obvious concern is that England won at Wembley without their one real super‑strength, the attack, finding any rhythm. They had two shots on target. Southgate used six attacking players. Of these only Mason Mount, whose duties were also defensive, performed to anything like his best level.
Sterling, the hero of the day, still looked cobwebbed close to goal. Marcus Rashford came on for 20 minutes and touched the ball five times, which feels generous. Most significant of all, Kane had perhaps his poorest game in an England shirt. Really, this was a stinker, and for reasons that seem to speak to the basic architecture of the team.
All the chat around England has been about their creative riches, but there is something unresolved in the way these are being deployed. Kane is England’s one real razor edge, but his game has also changed, just as the tone and texture of England’s attack has altered. Right now the parts look misaligned. The numbers from Wembley are unforgiving. Kane touched the ball 26 times. Despite dropping into midfield he contributed very little: no dribbles, no shots on target, only 62% of his passes completed.
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Kane is a wonderful player. He was very good for England in the World Cup qualifier against Poland just three months ago. But he also has three shots on target in his past five games and one goal from open play in 10. Get this: he hasn’t scored from open play at Wembley since Montenegro in November 2019. What’s eating Harry?
There are obvious structural reasons why Kane has chafed at times against this England attack. There has been so much talk about his own adaptations – the deeper positions, the spin-and-pass stuff – with the assumption this is always a good thing.
But there is also a moment to un‑adapt, to revert, to play those old tunes. When England set up in a 4-3-3 with the current personnel and patterns there is a sense of players simply bouncing off one another. Phillips, Mount, Phil Foden and Kane all wanted to fill that space behind the (nominal) central attacker. At times Kane seemed to be coming deep to pass to himself, only to find that he, Harry Kane, was nowhere to be seen. This iteration of Kane has worked previously with England. Check back and Kane’s last real period of goal-fury came between September and November 2019, when he scored 10 in six games. Several of those goals came with two of Sterling, Rashford and Jadon Sancho on the pitch, players who are happy to vacate that space, feeding off Kane’s passes and pulling opponents out of shape.
It is a pattern that has been regeared as England have fielded attackers who also want to come into those spaces. This either leads to gridlock, or to compromise. When Foden stayed wide on the right the effect was emphasise his only real weakness, his pronounced one-footedness, allowing Croatia’s defence to crowd him toward the touchline. Foden is too good in that central space to be neutered like this. Kane is too sharp to be spending his time 30 yards from goal creating chances for Sterling and Rashford.
International football is a simpler game. England have one very good finisher. The heat map of the Croatia game shows an inlet, a grey place where a centre-forward might have stood. This team will surely pose more danger with Kane deployed in that position as much as possible, shooting as much as possible.
On the plus side Kane is too skilful, too clever and too ruthless not to come good at some point. Maybe things will simply click. But he looked frustrated as he waved to the crowd on his lap around the touchline on Sunday, shoulders slumped, that flinty expression just a little more opaque.
Kane wants to be a complete footballer, tracking back and creating because he wants to add value in every metric. He also hates not scoring. Maybe, for England’s sake, it is time to get a little more brutally one-note. Team play cuts both ways. The collective might benefit from a little high-grade selfishness from its gun player.