Despite being on the verge of qualification for the 2022 World Cup, England have already dropped points in two competitive matches since their penalty shootout defeat to Italy in the final of Euro 2020.
That is not in itself a problem, but what will alarm those hoping to see further progress from Gareth Southgate’s team as he reportedly closes in on signing a fresh two-year contract, is that draws against Poland and Hungary appeared to confirm a tactical blockage that even Friday’s 5-0 win over Albania did not alleviate.
The 1-1 draw with Poland in September was worryingly familiar, resembling how England gradually shrank, dropped deep and drew into themselves in both the Euro 2020 final and the 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia.
These players – and England supporters – carry a collective trauma; a fear that history will repeat itself ad finitum. That is why a weariness descending over the players in a low-stakes game in Poland, complete with Southgate failing to be proactive in regaining control of proceedings, felt more painful than the actual result.
If the Poland game suggested England were trapped, the second draw, another 1-1 with Hungary, seemed to evidence that Southgate’s team have no way out. His experiment with a more adventurous tactical system fell flat, and it was notable that he reverted back to a 3-4-3 for the Albania victory.
Against Hungary, Southgate deployed Declan Rice as a sole defensive midfielder and unleashed Phil Foden and Mason Mount together as 'free eights' in a fluid 4-3-3 formation – only for England to look more stilted, and less creative, than ever.
One draw to confirm the blockage, another to confirm attempts at progress are likely to be futile?
To reach this conclusion is to misunderstand the rhythms of what constitutes progression for an international side, and to misread what is needed – tactically speaking – to take England to the next level.
Anyone still hoping Southgate will one day play swashbuckling attacking football, will one day cram England’s talented attackers into the same team and become the Pep Guardiola of the international circuit, is living in a fantasy.
And Southgate is right not to do so. There is no evidence over the last 20 years that such a system can win major tournaments, and any team retrospectively viewed as attack-minded has been mislabelled.
Spain 2008-12 were dull and quiet. Even Germany in 2014, perceived as expansive because of their 7-1 win over Brazil, squeezed through the knockouts with just four goals in their other three matches.
What these teams – as well as Roberto Mancini’s Italy (2021), Didier Deschamps’ France (2018), and Fernando Santos’s Portugal (2016) - have in common is putting the defence first.
Each used a cautious midblock with limited pressing and, most crucially of all, showed an ability to control the changing game states through central midfield.
In other words, what England need to focus on is not slick attacking interplay, but configuring the middle of the park so that they are no longer overwhelmed and ground down by the big nations.
That is what happened against Italy and Croatia, matches in which England looked increasingly leggy as Jorginho and Marco Verratti, and as Luka Modric and Matteo Kovacic, wrestled control, leading to nervous retreat.
The problem for the Three Lions has been a lack of midfield options – but that is about to change.
England supporters ought not to be disheartened by failed experiments with Foden and Mount as free eights, or continued indecisiveness from the dugout.
Soon enough, and before Qatar 2022 begins in 13 months’ time, England will have the midfield depth needed to stay on top in the latter stages.
Jude Bellingham is making phenomenal progress at Borussia Dortmund. The 18-year-old has started every Bundesliga game this season, and already has five goal contributions, surpassing his total for 2020-21.
His sophistication between the lines and immaculate one-touch control of the ball is frankly the future of the England national team.
Rice, too, has made another huge stride forward for West Ham and continues to prove he is so much more than a defensive midfielder; no Premier League player has covered more forward movement (2205 metres) in possession than Rice this season, per Opta. He is now in the bracket of world-class.
Mount is also approaching that level, and under the continued tutelage of Thomas Tuchel will become the possession-controlling midfielder England need late on in semi-finals and finals. It seems obvious that he will complete a midfield three with Rice and Bellingham in Qatar.
That will leave England’s bench with Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips, starters until recently, and two more up-and-coming midfielders with a big role to play.
Emile Smith Rowe is flourishing into a more complete and consistent footballer for Arsenal this season, bravely taking the ball in tight areas as an eight in Mikel Arteta’s midfield.
His ability to receive a pass under pressure, shield the ball, and break lines is arguably unique in the England squad. How they could have done with someone like that late on against Italy.
Crystal Palace’s Chelsea loanee Conor Gallagher is also an outstanding talent, destined for the very top of the game.
His tackling and positional awareness off the ball are exceptional, but even more impressive is Gallagher’s capacity to consistently make the right decision with every touch and every pass, and his late call-up to the squad for Monday’s game against San Marino is just reward for his sensational start to the Premier League season.
He and Bellingham are the two midfielders most likely to quietly revolutionise how England can approach the big matches, taking more initial control of central areas as well as ensuring the team does not dip late on.
Suddenly the area that has long been England’s weakest, that has held them back from making the final step, looks set to be one of their strongest.
Technically assured and intelligent midfield options from the bench could be the difference between another heartbreaking tournament exit and going all the way in Qatar.