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What will it take for England to show some attacking initiative?

The Three Lions tied the USA 0-0 partly due to missed chances, but mostly because England and Gareth Southgate showed their preference for safety (again).

England v USA: Group B - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Stefan Matzke - sampics/Corbis via Getty Images

The promise of the USMNT was on display in the 0-0 draw with England on Friday. Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah were particularly good in midfield, and the forwards made some chances for themselves.

But what was happening on the other side of the pitch to the team many consider to be tournament contenders?

It was another occurrence of England’s preference for safety and complacent tactics. The Three Lions were far too comfortable for too long in a match they should have wanted to win, and the United States took advantage.

This is not a new problem for England under Gareth Southgate. Their close calls and losses in their past two tournament runs were largely down to discomfort with seizing the initiative and playing too comfortable with everything to play for. Today it was how they played from the start rather than once they took the lead, and that’s an even more dangerous level of complacency. It’s something they seem to think they have the talent to get away with eventually, and perhaps they do, but it has cost them on the biggest stage of a major tournament once already, and could do so again if Gareth Southgate doesn’t learn.

The draw against the US was a bit reminiscent of England’s 0-0 draw with Scotland at the Euros in 2021, another match with extra external meaning that wound up being a bit of a concerning scoreless effort. The safety turned to complacency, and eventually danger. That was the case again on Friday.

England were patient to start the match. They were safe more than anything, and seemed comfortable working up the pitch slowly before springing chances.

The problem was it didn’t scare the US into making mistakes or playing uncomfortably. In fact it did the opposite, it gave them confidence. As the Three Lions continued slowing down their possessions, the US embraced the high-speed attacks at England’s width and even got into scoring positions.

infogol xG shot map from England vs. USA
https://www.infogol.net/en/matches/result/world-cup/england-vs-usa-2022-11-25/951311

Their shooting and chance creation remained poor throughout the match, but it was enough to stay confident and seize the initiative completely in the second half. Forced shots provided them some near misses, but no goals (fortunately for England). That shows why England often opt for safety and patience, they rarely concede goals. They only conceded twice at the Euros, both times from set-piece plays. The cost mostly comes at the other end of the pitch, as was the case on Friday.

England had two decent chances at about the 10-minute mark, and then didn’t have another look at goal until just before halftime. In the second half, they had to wait until stoppage time to create any chances, an indicator of both the American push forward and their preference for safety rather than creation when the game was in the balance. Their most dangerous chance came in the final minutes of the match.

I wrote in a previous piece about the wealth of options England has, and that they need to show the same ambition they showed against Iran in the rest of their matchups. I also said this about England’s midfield with forward thinking players like Jude Bellingham and Mason Mount:

This set up suits either of Gareth Southgate’s apparent England models, which are: 1. Just don’t concede whatever you do, and 2. They suck, let’s attack. The latter is the less common strategy, given Southgate’s preference for defensive stability, which is why players like Bellingham are huge for the first plan.

It’s a safe plan, but the problem is it leaves England reliant on creating on the break with fewer numbers forward.

It was option 1 from the start for England, and it made an ambitious midfield relatively useless for stretches of the match. That’s fine given the options off the bench, but the hesitancy by Southgate to utilize his options until late in the second half did more than just stunt any ambitions they had. It presented a window for the US to take control of the game.

Jordan Henderson, though an unpopular substitution, made things safer in midfield and gave England much more control in the closing stages, but they still didn’t drive at the American defense or make them too uncomfortable outside of a corner and a late free kick. Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish also came on as “try and make something happen” substitutions, but it was too little too late.

Some of this is on the players, there was a lack of execution throughout the match from England, and some players kept themselves isolated when they could have been more involved. But ultimately this falls on the manager. It’s happened before, and probably will happen again, but this is a team that should be putting multiple goals past this American defense regardless of how well their midfield played.