Why change a winning team? It’s an old saying that has stood the test of time. It is not necessary to disrupt a successful formula, unless the circumstances require it.
Gareth Southgate, however, saw this Battle of Britain differently. After asking Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier to be his flank sentries against Croatia, he has decided that these men, with 80 combined appearances in England, should withdraw from the feud with Scotland.
The England head coach made it clear it was a night he wanted energy and broad flair and Walker and Trippier were not the men for the task. Tripper sat down on the bench; Walker wasn’t even on the team. It was now up to Reece James and Luke Shaw to be the squadron commanders.
Gareth Southgate has made the decision to change his winning formula against Croatia
“We think their technical ability with the ball is something important for this game,” said Southgate. “We were really happy with the full-backs in the last game, but we have a lot of depth in that area of the pitch. “
In Southgate’s mind, this was going to be a night when England had surrounded Scotland, where they would smother their old enemies in the midfield and the supply line to Shaw and the prodigious James would be rich and plentiful.
In 16 seconds, however, you knew this script was not going to be followed. The first meaningful action ended with Shaw’s knee knocking on the hip by a Lyndon Dykes jumping and crashing to the ground in pain. The tone was set, the battle lines drawn.
Kyle Walker (left) and Kieran Trippier (right) were selected to play against Croatia last week
Football rarely goes the way you expect it to before kick-off, especially when the stakes are as high as in tournaments. Scotland could have been seen as inferior to England in the build-up, but they were never going to be anything but surly and aggressive nuisances.
Shaw, the Manchester United left-back who has been a model of consistency for his club, was playing his first tournament game since an easily forgotten night at Belo Horizonte in 2014, when England drew 0-0 with the Costa Rica, after being eliminated from the World Cup in 180 minutes.
It was a trivial meeting. Scotland at Wembley were in a different stratosphere and as the blue jerseys crowded into the early exchanges, making sure their presence was felt, the full-backs had to forget about any idea that they would become auxiliary wingers.
It was now up to Reece James and Luke Shaw to be England’s squadron commanders.
With 98 seconds on the clock, James – just after winning the Champions League – had his own rude awakening. So often he will receive a pass, take a touch and look forward to it. This time he found Andy Robertson rushing in his direction and had to switch back to Jordan Pickford.
If he was surprised, Shaw was equally out of breath: three minutes 40 seconds later, John McGinn threaded a ball inside that spun him like a top as Stephen O’Donnell slipped behind . His reduction, really, should have been shipped by Che Adams.
So often in great sports, the start sets the tone and it is difficult to recover if it drags: the horse that misses the break in a sprint is never on the right track again afterwards; the boxer who is stung between the eyes in the first round has difficulty concentrating. It was all about England.
Identifying James and Shaw for England’s disappointing efforts would be wrong and unfair because, as Tyrone Mings alarmingly suggested afterwards, there was a lack of intensity across the board. That’s why it was, Southgate will be pacing all weekend.
James struggled to find British creative stars like Phil Foden on a rough night
Shaw also struggled – breathless from the start and not contributing to the attack
But, in the same way, we can’t ignore the fact that full-backs were meant to be crucial in unlocking difficult areas of the pitch. Watching them work, you wondered why the scoreboard they had shown at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford over the past 12 months was missing.
Look at the evidence: 13 minutes, James fails to play in Phil Foden; 15 minutes, James back to Pickford, once again his eyes were on his own goal. Shaw was back on the ball in the 17th minute, but only to introduce it sideways to Declan Rice.
It was hoped that the second half would have seen them be more lively, but the hardworking nature of the display – combined with the relentless aggressiveness of the Scots – restrained them again. James had a drive over the bar in the 55th minute. Shaw’s 72nd-minute cross missed its mark.
James, it should be noted, came up with the most important action of the game when he cleared Dykes’ header off the line, but his frustrations boiled over in the 82nd minute when he tried to play against Raheem Sterling but the attacker never moved. James, at the end of his rope, threw his hands up in the air.
In many ways, that summed up the night perfectly. The intentions were good, the execution was anything but. Rather than full-backs helping England take flight, it was a night when – to Southgate’s frustration – their wings were cut off. (826)