Gareth Southgate has been here before – in his nightmares at Molineux. Back in June, at the end of the 4-0 humiliation against Hungary, the England manager had ventured on to the pitch to applaud the home crowd. The boos that greeted him dripped with venom.
And so to full time here. After Hungary at home; goodness, after the loss to Hungary away – plus the draws in between against Germany and Italy which had got this Nations League campaign off to such a bad start – it was a night when Southgate desperately needed a mood-changer, something to restore belief. Yet there would only be more frustration, more dead-ends, an absence of creative inspiration.
Again, Southgate went on to the playing surface when it was all over, he looked up at the travelling support and he applauded them. They poured forth abuse. They had seen little to give them encouragement and Southgate is the person to blame.
Italy were deserved winners, condemning England to relegation to the second tier of the Nations League, the decisive moment coming towards the end when the fast rising star, Giacomo Raspadori, killed a high ball and felt Kyle Walker give him too much room.
The Napoli striker took a couple of touches to set himself, drifting further away from Walker before wrapping his right boot around a delicious curler that flew into the far corner. Raspadori only made his Italy debut in June. Already, he has four goals.
With the World Cup on the horizon in late November, England’s slump has come at the worst time. The Nations League demotion stands to affect their Euro 2024 qualification draw. It will also see them play inferior opposition in the Nations League moving forward, reducing the chance to fine-tune against the best. But those issues feel incidental.
The big question concerns how Southgate and his players will recover before the opening World Cup tie against Iran, whether they can blot out the noise, the stifling narratives that are quickly building. Before that, there is Monday’s final Nations League tie against Germany at Wembley, which has the look of an even more intimidating assignment. That is it.
Never mind no wins in five – the worst such run since 2014 under Roy Hodgson – it is only one goal for England during the sequence and that was a Harry Kane penalty against Germany. There is one other team in the Nations League that have failed to score a goal in open play. It is San Marino.
England had not beaten Italy away since 1961; Southgate brought it up in his press briefing on Thursday night. It was a challenge and his team thrived on overcoming them, he said. It also felt like a call for perspective. Italy might not have qualified again for the World Cup but, lads, it’s Italy.
This Italy is a work in progress; not a team to terrify, despite it boasting the pedigree of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci and Jorginho – plus flashes of emerging talent. The swathes of empty seats inside San Siro highlighted local indifference and, also, the on-going nightmare that is the nation’s absence from Qatar.
England struggled throughout the first half. They were jittery, their passing loose, plenty of their touches heavy. The distribution from the goalkeeper, Nick Pope, did not inspire confidence and it felt like a risky business going back to him but he was hardly alone in treating the ball like a hot coal. Phil Foden, playing off the right, was a rare comfort in possession.
Italy snapped into tackles at the outset, pressuring England high up and getting some dangerous balls up the channels or across from the flanks. When Federico Dimarco dropped one to the far post, Gianluca Scamacca’s header from a tight angle was clawed away by Pope. England would also enjoy a let-off later in the first-half when Raspadori fluffed his touch after a cut-back from the right. The home team tried to target the space behind Bukayo Saka at left wing-back.
Southgate had wanted to be progressive, despite the reversion to a back three. Hence the selections of Reece James at right wing-back and Saka, plus Jude Bellingham in midfield. Yet the attacking plan was woolly. Southgate would lament poor final decisions or executions. It sounded as though he was clutching at straws.
England did not stretch Italy at all before the interval; they could not get behind them. Bonucci & Co looked at ease. And it was not wildly different in the second half, despite a late push.
James lifted a well-placed free-kick wastefully over while Kane had an opportunity from a tight angle. He banged it at Donnarumma, who beat it back to him. Should Kane have squared? On the rebound, Kane blasted at Donnarumma again. Bellingham tried to drive forward and he would have a headed chance in stoppage time but it was thin gruel.
Italy had threatened after half-time, Scamacca almost playing in Nicolo Barella only for an offside flag to go up. A Giovanni Di Lorenzo backheel nearly opened up England’s defence and then Raspadori mined gold, his strike a beauty.
Southgate introduced Luke Shaw and Jack Grealish for Walker and Saka, switching to 4-2-3-1, Raheem Sterling as the No 10. It was not the formation that was the problem and Italy might have had a second. Pope denied the substitute, Manolo Gabbiadini, in a one-on-one while Dimarco’s cross-cum-shot came back off the far post.