GUIMARAES, Portugal — For 120 minutes of this Nations League semifinal in Guimaraes, Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk was booed every time he touched the ball by England’s vast army of travelling supporters.
It is difficult to come up with a credible explanation for that, especially considering the contribution that Van Dijk made to Liverpool’s Champions League-winning campaign, but perhaps it was down to plain old envy. After all, here was a defender who produced a masterclass in his art, while at the other end, every England player in Gareth Southgate’s back four performed as though they were auditioning for a role in the Keystone Cops.
Van Dijk was not the only Dutchman to stand head and shoulders above their England opponents during the 3-1 victory, after extra time, which secured a date with Portugal in Sunday’s inaugural Nations League final in Porto. Frenkie de Jong, Memphis Depay, Daley Blind and Matthijs de Ligt — after a shaky first half that saw him concede a penalty for a foul on Marcus Rashford — all stood out for Ronald Koeman’s team because they all displayed the technique required to excel on the international stage.
As for England, their supporters could point to Southgate resting all seven of the players who participated in last Saturday’s Champions League final as one factor in their team’s failure to win this game. The emerging talent of Phil Foden, James Maddison, Harry Winks and Mason Mount may also be players who could make a difference in the coming months and years.
Yet while England were unfortunate to see Jesse Lingard‘s second-half goal ruled out for the tightest of offside decisions by VAR — a goal that would have put them 2-1 ahead with seven minutes to play — the reality is that last season’s World Cup semifinalists were outplayed and out-thought by the Dutch.
“I think we have learned so much in terms of playing against a top-quality team that posed us different problems to what we have faced in the past,” Southgate said. “We posed a threat in the game but we have conceded really poor goals.
“The Dutch pressed very well with a real intensity and we were not quite as sharp on some of the decision making. But I think it’s a really important game for us to reflect on and we will be stronger for the experience. We could have had a Euro 2020 qualifier and learned nothing.”
But for the heroics of goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, England would have slumped to a much heavier defeat because their defending was careless, they could not get a grip of the game in midfield and chances were too few for their forwards.
Less than a year ago, England returned from the World Cup in Russia having restored the nation’s reputation as a major player on the international stage, and victories over Spain and Croatia in the Nations League group stage appeared to underline their status as a force to be reckoned with ahead of Euro 2020 and Qatar 2022. But this defeat against the Dutch in northern Portugal offered a timely reminder of the shortcomings that were underplayed in Russia.
England still cannot control a game against a team capable of passing the ball, and they continue to struggle to score from open play against an elite opponent. In Guimaraes, England’s goal came from the penalty spot after Rashford converted from 12 yards following the foul by De Ligt.
In Russia, England at least looked competent at the back, with Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire and John Stones all returning to their clubs with enhanced reputations. But individually and collectively against the Netherlands, they were all error prone and unconvincing, as was left-back Ben Chilwell.
Maguire was caught in possession in dangerous positions more than once, while Stones’s defensive naivety saw him give the ball away to Memphis on the edge of the penalty area in the 97th minute — a mistake that led directly to Quincy Promes putting the Dutch ahead, courtesy of a heavy deflection off Walker. Stones was also at fault when failing to halt De Ligt’s run to his headed equaliser from a corner early in the second half, while Walker and Chilwell were both guilty of leaving huge gaps at the back when going forward, so it was a bad night all round for Southgate’s back four.
Unless England learn how to defend properly, they can forget about winning a major tournament anytime soon. And the same applies to their inability to control the tempo of games at this level.
Yes, they have players who helped Manchester City win a domestic treble and Liverpool the Champions League, but the likes of Stones and Walker are less exposed defensively at City thanks to the foreign talent around them, while Jordan Henderson‘s shortcomings at Liverpool are masked by Van Dijk behind him and the attacking talents of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino ahead of him.
Without the superior technical qualities of their club teammates around them with England, the true level of many of Southgate’s players becomes apparent. Raheem Sterling, another standout performer for City, is perhaps an exception, but even he has struggled to consistently reproduce his club form for England.
Players unable to shine for England as they do for their clubs has been a long-standing problem for the national team, but Russia 2018 suggested that Southgate might have found a way to reverse the trend. Yet at the halfway point between the World Cup and Euro 2020, England’s progress has stalled and this defeat against the Dutch was a worrying return to the old failings.
If they are to rediscover momentum, England need to defend properly again and, somehow, find a way to keep the ball and use it properly when they have it. It sounds simple, but they have now been trying and failing to do that since 1966.