After a first major tournament semi-final since 1996, England were flying high following the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and the positivity only grew when both European finals in the domestic season were all-English affairs.

Coupling that with a positive run in the inaugural UEFA Nations League and an appearance in the semi-finals, the English excitement was at risk of exploding once again.

Their defeat to the Netherlands in Portugal, both in its result and the manner of the loss itself, has proven that they are some way away from truly being among the world’s very best.

Gareth Southgate is a top manager, he masterminded that dream journey to the last four in Russia by playing to England’s strengths, but there are only so many corners that Kieran Trippier can successfully whip into Harry Maguire’s head. There needs to be stability elsewhere.

In recent European Championship qualifiers Raheem Sterling has overcome his torrid showing in the World Cup while young guns like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi have also staked their claim for a regular place in the team. This season also saw the meteoric rise of Jadon Sancho onto the world stage and Trent Alexander-Arnold solidify himself as a top tier full-back.

The line-up that Southgate put out against the Oranje, the options they had off the bench and the way in which they conceded the goals highlight the one key area that is letting the Three Lions down, and that is strength in depth.

Where Ronald Koeman played his two Champions League finalists for the full 120 minutes, Southgate left all seven of his on the bench, and arguably all seven of them would start in a full-strength England side.

Coming off the bench however, when chasing the game and needing a spark to turn the match on its head, there was nothing for Southgate to look to.

Harry Kane came on at half-time and is so clearly still unfit, as proven by his last two and a half hours on a football pitch. The next two off the bench in normal time were Jesse Lingard who is stagnating at Manchester United, and Jordan Henderson, the new Champions League-winning captain that would probably have started had he not played the game in Madrid less than a week ago.

Fantastic as he is, Henderson is not going to come on and change a football match and by the time Dele Alli came on at half-time of extra time, it was too late and the Three Lions were never going to chase the Netherlands down.

Fair enough that Southgate didn’t want to risk the fitness of his Champions League finalists, but leaving himself with a midfield three of Declan Rice, Ross Barkley and Fabian Delph – the latter of which only started three games in the calendar year – was suicide.

Barkley and Delph are low in the pecking order at Chelsea and Manchester City respectively, and while Rice is showing promise for a successful career at West Ham, that midfield was far too one-dimensional and the likes of Frenkie De Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum ran rings around it.

The defending was calamitous, with two goals from errors by John Stones and Barkley, but the fact was that Maguire and Kyle Walker were lucky to not be punished for similar acts of sloppiness at the back.

Sancho, Sterling, Kane and the like are world class, but the defence needs far more if England are to go on to win matches and tournaments in future. Stones has falling out of contention at City, Maguire has not become the linchpin he was hoped to become, and the likes of Walker and Rose are aging and beginning to decline.

Their development as a team will continue, the Nations League isn’t the be all and end all and there will be bigger things to come for the Three Lions, but the media would be wise to dial down the hype and the pressure on the players so they can focus on their football and achieving history for a country that has been starved of success for some 50 years.

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Nick Hughes
nick.hughesy6@gmail.com