As Gareth Southgate observed on Friday, the noise around his England team does “seem extremely loud” and he did not mean it in a positive way. This is what happens when any mis-steps are taken and there was certainly one in the 1-0 defeat to Hungary in Budapest last Saturday.
There would be further moaning three days later when England drew 1-1 in Germany, based on the disjointed nature of the overall performance rather than the encouraging late fightback. What Southgate needed here – apart from a win – was for his players to show greater cohesion for longer periods, to take better care of the ball and ask questions of an experimental Italy team; to pull them out of shape.
It did not happen, the patterns too predictable and, when opportunity did knock, the conviction lacking in front of goal.
There were two big chances for England, Mason Mount crashing the first against the crossbar and Raheem Sterling blowing the second from close range, which was the grizzly one. Reece James’s low cross from the right had been whipped into the danger zone but Sterling could not get his body shape right and, with the goal gaping, he ballooned high. England’s only reward from their three Nations League ties so far has been Harry Kane’s penalty in Germany.
The positives for England took in a clean sheet for Aaron Ramsdale, embossed by an excellent save to deny Sandro Tonali, some nice crosses from James and flickers from Mount. Fikayo Tomori was solid in central defence. But it felt glass half-empty and, when it was over – the 0-0 having come to feel inevitable – there were boos from the 2,000 or so school children in attendance, a moment that required a double take. Won’t somebody think of the children.
The strangeness of the occasion was impossible to ignore. It felt as though we were back to the ghost games of the pandemic, even if the children who were allowed in tried to make themselves heard, beginning with when they booed the Italy players during the warm-up. “Ooo are ya?” they enquired. There was more of the same when the visitors emerged for kick-off, when their names were read out and during spells when they had the ball.
The virtually empty stadium was punishment for the violence and disorder which had marred the Euro 2020 final between the teams at Wembley, the reminders of that occasion seemingly everywhere, although not in the Italy team.
Roberto Mancini named only two players who had started that night in his line-up – Gianluigi Donnarumma and Giovani Di Lorenzo – and most of the big stars were not involved. No Leonardo Bonucci, Jorginho, Marco Verratti, Federico Chiesa, Ciro Immobile. Giorgio Chiellini has just retired. For Mancini, it is about trialling new options after the trauma of failing to qualify for the World Cup. Again.
There was still a crispness about some of Italy’s passing and movement and a huge chance early on which, when it was passed up, represented a let-off for England. Lorenzo Pellegrini played the pass and Davide Frattesi, who had run off the back of Declan Rice, was in up the right. Frattesi dragged wastefully wide of the far post.
Southgate persisted with the 4-2-3-1 system he had used against Germany and he persisted with Mount in the No 10 role. The Chelsea man began as if he meant business, pressing hard and setting his sights on goal. After one shot straight at Donnarumma, he harried Francesco Acerbi, who went back to his goalkeeper, who then hit a stray pass to Tammy Abraham. The striker went right but he was put off by Manuel Locatelli. It was not Abraham’s night.
Mount was inches from giving England the lead on nine minutes. It was a move that he drove, fizzing the ball into Sterling and getting a lovely return pass as he timed his run into the area. Mount’s first-time curler flashed past Donnarumma but came back off the woodwork.
The early excitement ebbed, although there were moments for both teams in front of goal before the interval – more for Italy than England. Rice volleyed high from a James Ward-Prowse corner and Jack Grealish unloaded quickly with his toe following a James cut-back only to see Federico Gatti block.
It was Italy who were more threatening in the first half – they made inroads up the right – and England were indebted to Ramsdale for his save on 25 minutes. Tonali had to score from close range after a wonderful Di Lorenzo cross but Ramsdale made the block with his legs.
Gianluca Scamacca spun and blazed high; Ramsdale threw up a hand to tip over a deflected effort from Matteo Pessina and there was a block from Tomori to deny Pessina and then a follow-up stop by Ramsdale from Locatelli after Grealish had run into Abraham on the edge of the England area. Locatelli impressed, although not when he clattered through Mount to earn a yellow card.
England pushed at the start of the second half, with Grealish running with greater menace with the ball at his feet. He started to see more of it, to fizz his passes. The young crowd shrieked.
The Sterling chance came on 52 minutes and each replay looked worse than the last for him.
It all rather fizzled out after that. Sterling spun and shot at Donnarumma while Kane, on a substitute, shot high towards the end. In between times for Italy, Di Lorenzo failed to connect with a Pessina cross and the substitute, Degnand Wilfried Gnonto, shot into the side-netting.