England’s Raheem Sterling digs deeps but to no avail in pointless cause

Sterling, in his 58th game of the season, and teammates look jaded against Swiss – they should have been on the beach

Raheem Sterling of England
 Raheem Sterling of England attempts to evade Switzerland’s Manuel Akanji in the third place playoff. Photograph: TF-Images/Getty Images
On a soporific summer’s day in Guimarães one word reverberated in the mind like a mantra. Why? Why were England playing in one of the more pointless matches in international football history, when they should have been on the beach? Why were they also forced to play extra-time in a third-place playoff rather than going straight to penalties? And why – given all that puff and manpower – did Uefa not even deign them with a medal ceremony? Instead England’s bronze medals were given to them in a bag in their changing room afterwards.
That tells you a lot about how Uefa viewed this Nations League playoff. And while England and Switzerland’s players cared more, they also approached the game with a certain realpolitik. So while Gareth Southgate’s players locked arms during the shootout, giving the impression that it mattered greatly, when Jordan Pickford dived to his right to give England victory no one rushed over to bundle him over. Instead there was just light applause, an acknowledgment of a job well done rather than a major achievement unlocked.
They knew, just like we knew. It is nice to win, but context is everything. Afterwards Southgate said he would leave the medals in the back of the England bus for anyone who wanted one. The message was clear: he has his eye on bigger prizes down the line.
So what did we learn? First that Trent Alexander-Arnold continues to make a compelling case to be considered not only as England’s best right-back but the team’s best crosser since David Beckham. Twice in the first half he laid feathered opportunities on a plate, first to Raheem Sterling and then to Dele Alli, only for both to squander when it would have been easier to score.
Second, that all three England’s midfield places remain up for grabs. This remains a side crying out for a Andrea Pirlo or Luka Modric mini-me, who can stitch and knit and recycle between the back four and attacking trident. Harry Winks, who has played just 250 minutes for the national team, is considered to have the potential. Next season expect him to have the opportunities too. Ruben Loftus‑Cheek, who was also absent from Portugal due to injury, might also add a dynamism that was lacking in Guimarães.
Certainly playing two defensively minded midfielders – Declan Rice and Fabian Delph against the Netherlands, and Eric Dier and Delph against Switzerland – did not seem to work, although further forward Dele Alli had one of his better games for England against the Swiss.
For the most part, however, this was every bit the stinker that was predicted. It may have been marginally better than England’s third-place playoff against Belgium at the World Cup, but only because penalties gave it a long overdue pick-me-up. Mostly, though, there was a sense of drift and miscalibration, of players’ timings being out after a long season.
Who could blame Sterling, for instance, for not hitting the highest notes in Portugal? After all, this was his 58th game of the season. Last year he also played 58 matches. Since August 2017 his longest break is three weeks – from the end of Russia 2018 to Manchester City’s opening match of this season. He urgently needs the footballing equivalent of being put on long-term battery charge. The same could be said for Harry Kane, given he has had five ankle injuries in three years and barely any rest in between.
That Sterling and Kane were digging deep for the cause in Portugal was not their fault, nor England’s. But the danger when Uefa and Fifa appear determined to shorten what used to be the off-season is that thoroughbreds can be treated like carthorses. Increasingly football is a 11-month fandango, the baton passed from one season to the next with the blurring speed of a sprint relay. There will be no respite in 2021 either, with the World Club Cup munching deep into the summer.
For now, though, Southgate has every right to reflect on another highly satisfactory season, during which England have won seven of their past nine matches. Carry that form on and they will be second favourites behind France when Euro 2020 kicks off in a year’s time. By then, of course, no one will care what happened against Switzerland. Least of all Southgate, who is preparing to pause, reflect and then adjust his sights ever upwards.

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