After picking the same eleven for two such important qualifiers, it is clear Gareth Southgate pretty much knows his World Cup starters. But the lesson learned in the final minutes of the game in Warsaw is that before next year’s tournament in Qatar, the England manager needs to identify the finishers he can trust.
Because under his watch England have become the frailest leaders among the world’s top 10 countries as the Three Lions continue to be afflicted by a very English disease.
Even the nation’s finest footballing hour in 1966 only came after Wolfgang Weber took the game to extra time with a last-minute equaliser.
Southgate inherited a team of bottlers who had thrown away a lead against Iceland so infamously at Euro 2016.
Even in his caretaker days, he got a taste of his players’ frailty when, having led 2-0 against Spain in the 89th minute at Wembley, they ended the friendly clinging on for a 2-2 draw.
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Wednesday was the seventh time under Southgate that England have failed to win a competitive game in which they have led.
That includes defeats snatched from the jaws of victory in a World Cup semi-final, a Nations League semi-final and the Euro 2020 final.
Over the same period, the best team in the world, Belgium have let the lead slip just twice. Brazil, since 2016, have never been beaten once they have got their noses in front. Neither have Italy or the USA.
France and Portugal have been beaten just once.
Yet Southgate continues to put it down to bad luck.
“I think that we were in total control of the game against Poland,” he said. “We’ve had one moment when the goalkeeper was charged down and then the goal at the end.
“So the players have done a fantastic job across the 10 days and the three matches, I think, the way that they’ve responded to the disappointment of the final, the way they have picked the baton up from that – a lot of the other teams in those latter stages haven’t done that.
“They’ve taken on two very difficult away games with no away supporters in, packed attendances and really controlled those games well so I couldn’t give them enough praise and credit for what they’ve done.”
But on the eve of the European Championships he spoke about the importance of “finishers” – a concept trumpeted by England rugby coach Eddie Jones.
These are the players who, when England have got themselves in front, will see them through to glory.
Players like Jordan Henderson. If a captain who has lifted the Champions League cannot be trusted to play the last 20 minutes to safety, he should not be in the squad.
Similarly, for all their defensive qualities, once Harry Kane’s thunderbolt had found the back of the net on Wednesday, Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish could have been replaced with fresher legs.
Bukayo Saka and Trent Alexander-Arnold, with their wing-back experience, would be prime candidates.
Perhaps it might not have stopped Poland from picking open England’s defence in such heart-breaking fashion.
But honing a team of players to lock down these games has to be the priority.
The last time England did not use a single substitute was in the Euro 96 semi-final.
After another 25 years of hurt, we simply have to move on from there.
LOSING THE LEAD
Times since Euro 2016 when the top 10 international teams in the world have slipped up having been in front (world ranking in brackets)
(World ranking) Team – Matches – Final result
(4) England 7 L5 D2
(7) Spain 7 L2 D5
(8) Portugal 7 L1 D6
(6) Argentina 6 L1 D5
(3) France 5 L2 D3
(9) Mexico 3 L1 D2
(2) Brazil 3 L0 D3
(5) Italy 3 L0 D3
(1) Belgium 2 L2 D0
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