England end up coasting through to the knockout stages of the World Cup, while Wales fans might be wondering why their team was so passive.
1) In comparison with the global geopolitical machinations of the other game in this group between the USA and Iran, England vs Wales was never going to be able to really match it for genuine vitriol and antipathy. As various parties lobbed bricks at each other in the build-up to that match, the derby in the desert didn’t quite feel like quite the monolithic occasion it might otherwise have done.
England, barring an unprecedented calamity, were already just about through to the next round of the competition. Wales were almost – but not quite – out. Jeopardy was thin on the ground.
2) Handbrake off, handbrake on, handbrake… off… ish? Switching the formation to accommodate four changes put England tactically somewhere between the goal frenzy of the Iran game and the soporific performance of the USA match which followed.
Jordan Henderson started, to add a little bit of spine to a central midfield that had looked panicky and skittish prior to his arrival from the bench in that frustrating draw, while Kyle Walker was in for Kieran Trippier, Marcus Rashford for Raheem Sterling, and…
3) …because Mr Gareth knows that Christmas is just around the corner and he’s definitely not a Grinch, Phil Foden for Mason Mount, especially for our very own Dave Tickner.
The England team selection for this match felt a little as though it was made on the basis of an FA supercomputer logarithm working out exactly how much of a dead rubber a match might be if only a four-goal defeat or worse will eliminate you.
4) That Wales were so passive throughout the first half was something of a surprise. It is true to say that England can be at their most dangerous when attacking on the break, but there were points throughout the first 45 minutes during which it felt as though Wales were playing for the draw which would not have been close to enough to see them through to the next round.
5) There had been some discussion before the match over whether Wales could really afford to start both Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, players of outstanding quality but who are also somewhat past their peak. Rob Page answered that question by starting both of them, but by half-time Bale had touched the ball on just seven occasions, just one of which was for a pass.
Bale was withdrawn for Brennan Johnson for the second half, with the suggestion that he may have been injured towards the end of the first. It might have saved Page having to make an awkward call.
6) Bale has already intimated in interviews this week that he doesn’t intend to retire from international football just yet, and his career with Wales deserves a better send-off than being subbed at half-time during a bit of a humping by England. But his presence was a reminder of who they really were going into this tournament: an out-of-form team who seemed to have become a little over-dependent on their star being able to pull something out from somewhere on an increasingly regular basis.
7) Harry Kane had another goal-free evening and was taken off just after the hour. But Kane does more than just score goals. After ten minutes he slipped a perfect through-ball for Marcus Rashford, whose shot was superbly saved by Danny Ward for what turned out to be the best chance of the entire first half. And before he departed for the evening with a third of the game still to play, he found the time to tee up Phil Foden’s goal to give England a comfortable two-nil lead. Stunning centre-forward play all round.
8) This was a Man of the Match performance from Rashford, who didn’t allow the disappointment of his early missed chance to weigh him down.
Four minutes into the second he was first to the ball when England won a free-kick on the area, smacking his shot wide of Ward’s dive and in to give England the lead.
Barely two minutes later, he nicked the ball from Ben Davies and fed Kane, whose brilliant low ball across the penalty area was turned in by Phil Foden.
Midway through the half, Rashford picked the ball up on the right, carried it inside and shot under Ward for his second and England’s third of the night. It was an excellent display – and poignant, as it happened.
9) The third goal was an encapsulation of the risks that Wales had to take once they’d fallen a couple of goals behind. Their initial reaction to this was fairly positive – Daniel James shot a foot wide and Kieffer Moore’s effort took a huge deflection off Harry Maguires’s slab of a head, forcing Jordan Pickford into some acrobatic contortions to pull off an excellent save. But Wales had to commit players forward and the third goal showed exactly how stinging the punishment can be when England catch you on the break.
10) It’s a strange world, in which playing someone with the obvious talents of Phil Foden against moderate opposition in a match which has been designated by the FA’s supercomputer as having a 61% chance of ending up a bit of a dead rubber, but that’s the strange place in which England find themselves at the moment.
The problem – and I should add that this is the first worldiest problem since being unable to decide whether to have brown or white bread for your avocado toast – is that England have about five or six excellent players for two or perhaps three positions. Foden did his job against Wales. He adds a little spice, a little hint that something unexpected might be just around the corner, and he chipped in with a goal. The Clamour for him to get a start in the next game will now likely grow to fever pitch.
11) After all the talk of the Spirit of ’58, all those near-misses, and that enormous effort to get to Qatar in the first place, Wales supporters could be forgiven for asking: ‘Is that it?’.
It turned out that bucket hats and vibes alone were not enough to get Wales through the group stages of a World Cup, and it’s not so much that they’re going home after three matches that is the surprise, it’s the way in which they did so. There was a meekness to their performances across all three games which contrasted sharply with the depth of support flowing from the stands.
A more direct formation in their second game against the USA managed to claw a way back into that match, but against both Iran and England their passivity ended up costing them greatly. The goals they conceded against Iran may have come very late, but they were warranted on the basis of the previous 97 minutes, while it certainly felt difficult to believe that Wales needed a win to stay in the competition for long periods of either match.
The good news for their supporters is that the expansion of the World Cup means that they likely won’t have to go another 64 years before they get another chance.
12) England have scored 17 goals in their two World Cup groups under Gareth Southgate. The 2018 figure of eight goals was a record tally and the 2022 figure of nine tops that. The amount of time it took England to score their previous 17 goals in the group stages of the World Cup finals may surprise you: the first of them was scored by Paul Scholes against Tunisia in 1998.
England can’t win every game 5-0. No-one wins every game 5-0, and if you want an idea of how far Southgate has pushed England, there’s an obvious compare and contrast with the two tournaments prior to him taking charge: failing to progress from a World Cup group for the first time in more than half a century; then being beaten by Iceland for what will now probably forever be their most embarrassing ever result.
13) By the closing stages of the game, England supporters were back to singing The Gareth Southgate Song again. It was all a long way removed from the boos that were ringing in the players’ ears as they left the pitch at the end of the USA game, but such is the nature of the position of England manager.
On the subject of music, a special mention to Chesney Hawkes for making a special half-time appearance inside the stadium, all of which sounded considerably more enticing than hearing anyone trying to analyse what had been a pretty turgid first half of football.
14) Southgate remains the most successful England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, and while concerns about his sometimes over-cautious approach are not without good reason, the level of distrust shown towards him despite his record remains surprisingly high.
It’s difficult to deduce how many were calling for the England manager to be sacked after two games of a World Cup solely because saying the maddest things on social media gets you the most attention, but in these angry, angry times, it wouldn’t be out of the question if some of them genuinely did believe that this should have happened.
15) BUT (and it is a big but), England just look so much better when they are trying to play attacking football. No-one is suggesting that they should just throw on all of their attacking players on in one go with Southgate shouting ‘DEFENDING IS FOR LOSERS’ from the sidelines, but it does sometimes feel as though England have a tendency to play to their weaknesses rather than their strengths.
At the start of the second half – possibly as a result of a tactical switch by the manager, possibly because the players were enervated by the dulcet tones of Mr Hawkes drifting through from the half-time show, it’s difficult to say for sure – England really came out on the front foot, as though they had a point to prove. Within eight minutes they were two goals up and had put the game to bed.
16) The minimum requirement for an England manager has been met, but the challenge in the next round is pretty much an unknown quantity. England have never played Senegal before, but the calibre of players at their disposal offers a stiff challenge – for all that they miss Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly already feels like he should be a contender for team of the tournament – and Southgate will already be fully aware of the risks of going gung-ho against them. The handbrake well may come back on for the next game, even though the evidence seems to suggest that England play better without it.