England’s UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying loss to Czech Republic was a perfect illustration of the difference between arrogance and complacency.
Arrogance would be England believing they’re unbeatable because they think they’re better than they are. England teams of the past have undoubtedly been so afflicted. This England team is not.
Complacency is different. Complacency misreads a comfortable situation as assured. It dulls the sharp edges and leads to a performance below what’s required.
England were certainly guilty of that in Prague and in truth many of us have been guilty of it on their behalf.
Breezing through qualification has become a habit. Scoring goals with ease has been the norm. Gareth Southgate’s team took their eye off the ball against Czech Republic and deserved to get caught out.Embed from Getty Images
They didn’t fail to win because they were arrogant enough to believe it was the only outcome but because they weren’t properly focused on the details of the task. Southgate must be included in that criticism.
He, like most of his players on the field, is better than this defeat. It was a weak effort. Southgate and England got what they deserved and lessons must, and will, be learned.
England made the same positive start that’s been such a feature of this qualification campaign. Harry Kane dropped in and played a first-time pass for Raheem Sterling. Sterling chopped back on to his right foot, got clipped, and Kane scored the early penalty.Embed from Getty Images
It was England’s last moment of true incisiveness and it was cancelled out immediately by a Czech Republic equaliser that left little room for excuses.
The hosts had their set pieces well planned but this corner kick was poorly defended. Declan Rice slipped and lost the first challenge, Michael Keane lost Jakub Brabec at the back post. It wasn’t the last time.
Southgate’s 4-2-3-1 was a mistake. Mason Mount’s high position surrendered the midfield, where England were left with Rice and Jordan Henderson – both sitting and neither effective – lacked both dynamism and numbers against the Czech three.
England’s four-player press was too often played through or simply around and they sought to adapt. At half time Southgate reinstated his 4-3-3 with Mount to Rice’s left, Henderson to his right.
It was a tactical switch that worked and yet didn’t. The desired result wasn’t achieved but it released Henderson from a position he’s clearly uncomfortable playing; his improvement was immediate.
Despite being second best there was a spell in the middle of the second half during which England looked likeliest to score.
They didn’t do it but the second Czech goal was a little against the run of play. The home side had only been pushing for a couple of minutes when England buckled.
30-year-old debutant substitute Zdeněk Ondrášek was the beneficiary, holding his position on the penalty spot while Keane embarked upon a solo sojourn to exactly the wrong position.Embed from Getty Images
The late introduction of Tammy Abraham was England’s last roll of the dice and at least secured his future as an England player. An equaliser at the death never seemed likely.
Jaroslav Šilhavý’s team were happy to break up England’s doomed attempts to play football with a clever foul but their greatest advantage at the Sinobo Stadium was their quality with the ball at their feet.
England, ultimately, were relying upon mistakes that were never made. Consequently Sterling and Jadon Sancho weren’t involved nearly enough.
The visitors were just a few percent short all over the pitch and it had a big impact. They had no cohesion. There wasn’t enough movement off the ball in a disjointed display that was capped off by dire defensive errors of their own.
Czech Republic’s 2-1 win took them level on points with Group A leaders England, who have a game in hand. Kosovo, in third and four points behind, are now the only other team in the group that can qualify automatically for EURO 2020.
For England, automatic qualification will have to wait.
Before this defeat they hadn’t lost a qualifier for a decade and a day, a run that stretched to 43 games. Complacency is always a threat in those circumstances and the simple truth is that England were bound to lose a qualifier sooner or later.
Southgate will have been frustrated that England’s trouble-free run ended on his watch but he’s smart enough to understand that one loss does not a catastrophe make.