It was good to see the Three Lions on Teesside, a reminder that whilst others talk about levelling up, Watford-born, Harrogate-based manager Gareth Southgate wants a genuinely national team. With five Yorkshiremen, plus a Sheffield United goalkeeper, it is a squad we can get behind even if their football is not always as easy as it should be to love.
At the Riverside England were without 11 European finalists, Trent Alexander-Arnold got injured and Jordan Henderson was only fit enough for 45 minutes.
At least there was no Covid-19 scare like the ones Sheffield United’s John Fleck and Leeds United’s Diego Llorente were dragged into with Scotland and Spain.
There were political distractions around the booing of players taking the knee but whilst many still feel unease worthy of respect, it is no longer expressed in a way which threatens to disrupt the team and frankly is not.
The team looks much better defensively than attacking, which is surprising and from a purist rather than pragmatic point of view, disappointing.
Southgate is far too sensible for hyperbole, and the former England centre-back called Tyrone Mings “a colossus” deputising for the injured Harry Maguire in the first two matches. But the Sheffield-born centre-back was on Rolls Royce form against the Czech Republic, adding defensive and passing assurance, and Barnsley-born John Stones was outstanding against Scotland.
All four full-backs used have done well, with Kyle Walker, another from Sheffield, looking the best on the right, Luke Shaw wonderful on the left against the Czechs. Ben Chilwell is a European Cup-winning wing-back who may not play in this tournament yet it is unlikely to be a problem.
Declan Rice has shielded the defence and Leeds’s Kalvin Phillips has been excellent both as his partner and standing in for him in the last 45 minutes of group football. That allowed Henderson to put himself in the frame too.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s raggedness before his spring injury has been put to bed.
No wonder England have not conceded in five summer games.
The concerns are at the other end, with only Raheem Sterling’s two goals. England have hit the woodwork in each game, but are still capable of more.
Harry Kane looked way off the pace in the first two games but a striker who specialises in slow starts to seasons was sharper against the Czechs and has earnt a big dollop of trust.
Mason Mount, like Chilwell, having to train alone because he spent too long chatting to Covid victim Billy Gilmour is a blow and another reminder that the rules are annoyingly inconsistent but other teams have faced far worse. They will surely not be ready for the last-16 as their quarantine ends 17 hours before kick-off.
If Southgate keeps a No 10 it could be the higher risk, higher reward option of Jack Grealish, which will put Wembley more firmly on England’s side. Grealish was exciting in Tuesday’s first half but disappointed with his second, ended early to the odd boo.
Phillips, Shaw and co must improve their dead-ball deliveries at the many free-kicks he will win.
Like Pickford and Kane, Sterling keeps delivering for England, an outlet for the longer passes Stones, Maguire and Phillips in particular like.
Bukayo Saka was a huge bonus after his unexpected selection against the Czechs, the 19-year-old showing, like Phillips and Rashford, that often in tournaments those England expect less of rise to the occasion. Like Sterling, his pace compensates for Kane’s lack of it, and unlike him he provides width, opening more space for Grealish.
This is Marcus Rashford’s third major tournament without starting a meaningful match. Jadon Sancho has had seven minutes.
Leaving out Phil Foden seems like madness but dropping Saka, Grealish or your only goalscorer are not appealing either. England have so many good attacking options but not the right chemistry. The answer probably lies less in personnel, more the approach of those behind.
They need the same boldness and intensity when 1-0 up they often show at 0-0. Even with such a solid base, sitting on 1-0 against attackers capable of unstoppable brilliance is one of the few risks Southgate is not averse to.
England begin the real thing with half the job done, and the tools to complete it if they strike the right balance between courage and carelessness.
Now, though, half-measures will not do.