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England stuck with the same XI in the same 4-3-3 shape which ripped through Iran four days earlier, but this was a completely different gameplan by Gareth Southgate, who came to the Al-Bayt Stadium clearly wary of USA’s press. England tried to nullify by doing nothing at all: their most common passing combination was John Stones to Harry Maguire, and their second-most common passing combination was Maguire to Stones. If Southgate took the handbrake off against Iran, he pulled it up again for the USA, then left the car in the garage, locked the door and dropped the keys in a canal.
It was not as if Stones and Maguire didn’t have options. Mason Mount and Jude Bellingham showed for passes to feet in their No8 roles but the centre-halves barely considered it. It was as if they’d had a personality transplant since the game with Iran, against whom Maguire’s cutting pass through the lines to Mount set up England’s first goal.
By contrast this ploy was miserable to watch, it was ineffective in practice, and what’s more, it was not a recipe for stopping USA’s other big threat beyond their high press: counterattacks. At one point on the half hour, Weston McKennie pinched the ball from Mount, then proceeded to glide past the weary trudge of Declan Rice and advance 50 yards up the pitch to set up a move which led to Christian Pulisic’s smash against the crossbar.
The US enjoyed plenty of success either side of the isolated Rice. Once Mount or Bellingham were bypassed, huge spaces opened and the Americans yee-hawed straight through them. England’s impotence would have been semi-understandable had they neutralised their opponents in the process, but that was just not the case.
England’s 4-3-3 shape was cancelled out by USA’s similar formation.
When Maguire did unzip his passing range, it was reasonably effective. On one occasion he pinged a cross-field ball to Raheem Sterling in space who drove at the US defence, and again late in the first half he found Luke Shaw creeping up the left wing, who in turn picked out Sterling and it led to Mount’s snap-shot which was parried wide. But those moments were all too rare. It was as if England felt conformable against Iran’s deep block but were scared to the point of inertia by the USA’s high press.
In the second half Bellingham took up slightly deeper positions without the ball in an effort to support the over-run Rice, while Mount led some effective pressing moments further up the pitch. But there was no momentum shift, and if anything the US seemed to grow in confidence in tandem with their fans’ increasing volume. The three-man midfield of Bellingham-Rice-Mount looked world-beating a few days earlier but now it was being beaten by the US, and sometimes single-handedly by the excellent McKennie. US captain Tyler Adams was also excellent, particularly when backtracking to defend.
On 65 minutes Southgate finally made two changes, replacing Sterling with Jack Grealish as a much-needed outlet to carry the ball upfield, and Jordan Henderson in place of Bellingham for a more naturally suited player to join Rice in suring up a leaking midfield. But there was no attacking change, no acceleration forwards.
Perhaps that was because England didn’t really need to win this game; a draw was enough to maintain their place on top of the group and put them on the verge of qualification to the knockout stages with that bumper goal difference to fall back on should things go pear-shaped against Wales on Tuesday night. Perhaps it was also because Southgate’s default is to be cautious, to reject risk’s many temptations, and this is the basis on which he has built much of his success as England manager thus far. Despite all England’s toils, arguably their most naturally gifted attacking player, Phil Foden, remained a forbidden fruit on the bench.
And so this match remains a far more realistic yardstick than Iran for where England are in this tournament, and perhaps a forewarning of what lies ahead. On this evidence it will not be an easy watch.