For English soccer, the first two-week international period of the new season often doubles as the next phase of a post-mortem into the national team’s failings at a recent tournament.
Not so much this time.
As the squad gathered at its St. George’s Park training base this week ahead of matches against Spain and Switzerland, it was a chance for the players to reminisce about their journey to the World Cup semifinals during a summer when the English fell back in love with their vibrant team.
Yet, despite all the euphoria, soccer didn’t come home and the wait for a first international title since 1966 goes on.
England will do well to address the reasons behind the semifinal loss to Croatia, rather than bask in its unlikely progress to the last four in Russia and its best World Cup performance since 1990.
And the visit of Spain — with its seemingly limitless supply of gifted and technical midfielders — to Wembley Stadium on Sunday could serve as a stark reminder about where England’s main weakness lies at the start of the journey toward the European Championship in 2020.
Jordan Henderson, the most experienced member of England’s midfield, watched a replay of the Croatia game soon after returning home from the World Cup. He couldn’t help but notice a flaw that has affected England’s midfield for some time, even when the so-called “golden generation” of Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and Frank Lampard were playing.
“One of the biggest things I picked up is that we didn’t keep the ball well enough in the second half, especially when we were under pressure,” Henderson said. “In those situations, when you’re under pressure, you have to keep the ball.”
How England could do with someone like Luka Modric, who helped turn the match in Croatia’s favor that night in Moscow, or any of the Spain midfielders — Isco, Thiago Alcantra and Saul Niguez among them — expected to line up at Wembley.
Game management, especially against top-quality rivals, has been England’s undoing and the team panicked under pressure against Croatia, at times hoofing the ball long or taking on an opponent when a simple pass would have done. The same happened in two matches against Belgium (one in the group stage and the other in the third-place playoff) and also in the latter stages of the last-16 match against Colombia, the other teams with a strong, technical midfield that England faced at the World Cup.
England coach Gareth Southgate must decide if the midfield of Henderson or Eric Dier along with two attacking No. 8s — Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are the best options — gives his midfield enough security and ball-playing prowess.
One player who would have added more technical ability is Adam Lallana, but he was injured in training this week and isn’t available. Leicester midfielder James Maddison has lots of potential, but he was selected in England’s under-21 squad.
Other issues facing Southgate:
Southgate largely kept faith with the players who excelled at the World Cup but the international retirements of Jamie Vardy and Ashley Young will have given him some thinking to do.
Young was the left wing back in Russia, and his place will be taken by either Danny Rose or Luke Shaw. Fit again after two years of injury problems, Shaw has started the season well at Manchester United and might get the nod.
Vardy was the main back-up to striker Harry Kane and his departure leaves Southgate with Marcus Rashford and Danny Welbeck, who rarely start for their clubs and mostly feature out wide when they do, as his other options.
LACK OF PLAYING TIME
Another thing puncturing optimism generated from the summer is the sight of Fabian Delph, Loftus-Cheek and Rashford kicking their heels on the benches of Premier League teams this season, and even Lingard and Henderson having to battle to get playing time.
Phil Foden, the highly rated midfielder who starred in England’s World Cup-winning under-17 team, was expected to get more action at Manchester City this season after Kevin De Bruyne’s injury but he has played only about 10 minutes in City’s first four games.
Southgate has bemoaned England’s small pool of available talent, saying English players have played 30.4 percent of the 7,200 minutes in the Premier League this season — down from 33 percent at the same time last season.
He also said the bridge from the Premier League academies to the first team is getting tougher to cross because of the number of foreign stars in the division and the short-term thinking of some managers.
“If players are as good as any young players around the world, then that opportunity needs to be there,” Southgate said. “If we are encouraging young players about entering academies, we are selling them the dream and there’s an ethical element there, too.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80