Old failings remain despite big strides forward under England chief Gareth Southgate

IT was as depressingly familiar as the moronic chants about ‘Ten German Bombers’ that polluted the air from a section of so-called England ‘supporters’ in Porto earlier in the week.

Fall guy: England head coach Gareth Southgate consoles John Stones.
Fall guy: England head coach Gareth Southgate consoles John Stones.

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Off the pitch, old habits die hard for a cabal of tanked-up ‘Ingerland’ followers who shamefully drape themselves in the flag of St George, shout obscenities at their European hosts and trash otherwise pleasant city squares.

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On it, England’s footballers sadly continue to revert to type in the furnace of sporting battle as well; this latest grim enactment arriving against the Dutch in Guimaraes on Thursday night.

Netherlands' Virgil van Dijk (right) celebrates with goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen after the final whistle (Picture: PA)

It was another excruciating defeat in a heavy-duty pressure game where the outcome had an air of inevitability about it long before Oranje substitute Quincy Promes applied the last rites in extra-time in a richly-deserved 3-1 Nations League semi-final win for the Netherlands.

For Guimaraes, read the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow – almost 11 months earlier in the World Cup semis against Croatia.

Or, if you prefer, Nice, Sao Paolo, Bloemfontein, Shizuoka, Charleroi or Saint-Etienne.

England’s propensity to deliver mistake-ridden displays and shoot themselves in the foot with unerring regularity at the worst possible time truly precedes them in the sporting summer.

On all of the aforementioned occasions, England have either led or tantalisingly hauled themselves back into contention, only for the lights to then go out.

Even the odd victory in key knock-out games over the years has usually arrived with a caveat.

The cathartic penalty-shoot-out World Cup win over Colombia last year only arose after an implosion which saw Yerry Mina level in stoppage-time, an occasion where edgy England’s game management left plenty to be desired.

Granted, England dispatched Sweden comfortably enough in the quarter-finals in Samara. But that should be tempered by the fact that this was a thoroughly average Swedish side. Had Zlatan Ibrahimovic still been around, who is to say England would not have been spooked?

So back to Thursday, with England’s wait to reach a first ‘competitive’ final since 1966 extending that bit longer, with a fall guy thrown into the mix for good measure. Plus ca change.

The likes of David Seaman, David Beckham and Phil Neville have copped it in the past for grievous errors of on-pitch judgement and so now the opprobrium is directed towards John Stones after the Yorkshireman’s wretched evening in Portugal. England loves a scapegoat, after all.

In fairness to Stones, his fellow defenders Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell did not have error-free nights either, but his was the most damning.

Speak to those who know Stones well and they will say that the occasional mistake will always be part of the package and has to be mitigated against what the Barnsley-born defender does offer, which is considerable.

Pace, poise and intuitive reading of play are three of his feted characteristics, while his ability – and bravery – to play his way out of trouble and not cede possession has been honed by the best in Pep Guardiola and encouraged by Gareth Southgate.

A ‘pep talk’ from the Catalan famously revived the spirits of misfiring Raheem Sterling during Euro 2016. Expect a phone call to Stones to have also transpired in the wake of Thursday’s events – further imploring his classy centre-back to stay true to his instincts.

But if ever there was proof that the key facet of high-level defending is decision-making, it came in buckets in Guimaraes.

If Stones required true enlightenment, he would have found it not from Guardiola, but the imperious figure on the opposition side in Virgil van Dijk.

Widely recognised as the top defender on the planet, the Dutchman’s credentials were neatly summed up by Watford’s Troy Deeney back in March.

As someone who thrives on combat, he simply said of Van Dijk: “He is too big, too strong, too quick, too good on the ball.”

Too smart as well. Certainly too shrewd to be caught out trying to be over-elaborate against high-pressing opponents like Holland on Thursday with the game on a knife-edge, for sure.

The best tailor their game accordingly and the reason why van Djik should be viewed as the creme de la creme is because he invariably takes the right option.

Liverpool fans pay homage to the Holland captain with the line: ‘he’s our number four’. The fact that the Dutch also had a bonafide continental ‘number six’ to control the tempo in the immaculate Frenkie De Jong will have also aided van Dijk and his cohorts in their sense of security.

England’s absence of such a player with a perceptive understanding of their role in front of the defence with an innate ability to hold onto the ball and recycle it continually while not being static, was as glaring as their failings at the back.

De Jong ran the game, just as Luka Modric did in Moscow on that fateful night last July.

Perhaps the closest example that England have to that sort of figure in the future is Tottenham midfielder Harry Winks, a player who looks like not being fazed by exalted company and who puts a premium on possession.

Finding a lasting solution in that regard will be imperative for Southgate, going forward.

Significant strides have been made during his reign, but old failings still frustratingly remain.