What did we learn? How did it feel? What were the bullet points, the red lines, the notes of glory in this goalless Nations League international in an empty stadium between two teams who spent long periods of this game struggling against some invisible plane of resistance, like flies buzzing down a window pane?
As competitive games go this one stretched the semantic limits of the word “competitive” into some interesting new spaces. At times it felt like a late July club tour practice game. As the ball was shuttled sullenly around the back of midfield you half expected to look at the team sheets and see “A Triallist” listed.
For all that, Molineux is a lovely place to play; a fun, clanky cantilevered thing that rises up above the houses and the trees, its golden stands faded just a little to the color of processed cheese. Here it was of course empty, apart from a knot of children in one stand. What a wonderful idea to take England’s empty stadium around the country in this tournament year.
And as ever there are always patterns, glimmers of meaning, stars that must rise and fall in these games. Two mildly interesting things did happen here. The first was Jack Grealish starting for England, as is the constant low-level public demand, the cry from the sidelines for the People’s Jack. So much so it was tempting to ask before this game what would be the better outcome for Gareth Southgate: Grealish plays well, solving a problem? Or Grealish plays badly, also solving a problem?
English football has always loved a famous cause. It is a grand old tradition, a reflex, folksy kind of thing. But Grealish is also a strange kind of cause, mainly because the yearning for his presence is based more in an idea of what he might do, a sense of something starry and unexpressed, rather than any hard evidence. Previous people’s favorites have at least tended to have a showreel behind them. Grealish doesn’t really produce enough to justify the level of feeling around his non-selection. He isn’t a Hoddle or a Le Tissier. He is instead a maverick talent for the Instagram age, the celebrity-obsession age, Grealish yearning is Fomo. It’s all the good times you never had.
But it was a useful thing to see him against this level of opponent. And he played quite well as England’s most urgent attacker, roaming infield from the left of the trident behind Tammy Abraham. Early on he was diligent and solid. For a while he began to roam inside, which seemed the right thing to do given the room-temperature nature of the game. With 27 minutes gone Reece James overlapped on the right, pulled the ball back and Grealish tried an improvised prod with the toe of his boot that was blocked by Federico Gatti.
The second half saw England settle into a more progressive rhythm, picking away at the edge of Italy’s defence. For a while Grealish started to do more, to romp along with some authority on the left.
The thought occurred that he was just being too nice right now, too diligent. Maybe what he really needs to find in this team is a little more of the Jack the Pirate King energy that he carried around at Aston Villa. International football can be slow at times. The game is densely packed, a matter of system and tempo and pressure fronts. A spell where one of your midfielders plays like the day belongs to them can change the temperature.
For Grealish the battle right now is to meet those levels, to earn the right to be in these games, while retaining his ragged edge, his mischief, the ability to do things that break the game open. At time he seems uncertain about his own role in this, his limits. How far can he take it?
If this wasn’t a Jack game, or much of a game at all, it did carry an increasingly familiar undercurrent of alarm.
If there is a note of concern – and there is; this team looks a little overripe, a little tired – it is in that midfield, an unsolved puzzle of the Southgate years. Even a B-list in-recovery Italy – an Italy with their heads in the clouds – were able to pass the ball with greater speed, to have a little more urgency about their movement.
Italy played this game in crisp triangles, zingy triangles. They had a lot of these crisp, zingy triangles. But then, so does a bag of Doritos, and while Italy still lacked any real incision at the end of it even a team in standby mode had more fluency in that area, with Manuel Locatelli a class above what England could offer.
There will be concern at the failure to score a single outfield goal in the last three games, but this feels like an outcome, not a cause. England will score again; they have some fine attacking talent. The lack of pattern, of class, of real fluency in that midfield feels like the real concern, and one that still has no obvious resolution.