KHOR, Qatar — In three World Cup oddities sprinkled across 72½ years, England has been unable to defeat the United States when the United States was a global minnow (1950), unable to defeat the United States when the United States had become sort of a guppy (2010) and unable to defeat the United States when the United States has become rather a smallish striped bass (2022).
The circumstances don’t seem to matter. Play the United States, and England winds up sent to the corner of the aquarium for a mild national sulk. Make it a loss (1950) and two draws all told — in South America, Africa and now Asia — and raise the question: If something happens without fail, does it count as an oddity?
It kind of did Friday night with the goalless draw in the northernmost of the eight World Cup stadiums. It followed upon the sparkling 6-2 win over Iran on Monday during which England occupied some fresh realm of delight even when considering its strong results in recent years, with youngsters such as Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham helping lift the whole enterprise above mere fodder for national self-analysis.
Yet the loveliness fizzled by England’s second match. “To come off that high of a performance [against Iran] the other day and find that same energy and depth of quality was always going to be a challenge,” said Gareth Southgate, the most accomplished England manager of the 10 — 10! — in this young century. Further, regarding the United States, “They defended incredibly well.” So the same fans who sang “God Save the King” several times found enough voice left to boo at the end.
“Were we booed off?” Southgate said. “I’m not sure if that was aimed to us.”
Apparently it was, a reporter reminded Southgate, who dug into his deep reservoir of decency and said calmly: “This is the tournament of external noise. But we’ll have another layer of that I’m sure, but we’re on track. We’ve a bit to do. We can still win the group, and that’s going to be our target.”
Some may need reminding that it’s not bad that England still tops Group B with four points, followed by Iran with three, the United States with two and Wales with one. Most teams do require three games to clinch passage through to the knockout stage, Southgate reminded, now the case for England on Tuesday in its intra-country, international match with Wales, even if the England that barged to the semifinals at Russia 2018 required only two (against Tunisia and Panama) to clinch a spot in the next round.
That finish, England’s first semifinal since 1990 and only its second since its lone World Cup title in 1966, helped build momentum toward this event, and then the Euro 2020 finalist slot that happened in 2021 helped build more, and then the Iran match helped build it still more. Now comes a dose of that old reality about the old grind, one World Cup after 2018 when 50 million sets of hands spent this part of the group-stage process getting a breather from their customary wringing.
They will wring with the best of all the world’s wringers for a few days now after England found its passing lanes gummed up and its quality surrounded by company. Never did it look free and comfortable. Only once did it ask American goalkeeper Matt Turner to make any kind of stretch, and that was on the minute of added time in the first half, when Mason Mount one-timed a pass from Raheem Sterling and blasted from the top of the box to Turner’s outstretched right hand.
“The way [the Americans] pressed, the energy, the athleticism was exactly what I thought,” Southgate said, “so it was whether we were going to be able to find the solutions tonight to help with that, counter that, exploit that, and we answered most of the questions but not all of them.” He thought his team lacked “a little bit of zip and quality in the final third,” with the Americans affecting that zip and that quality, but that England “had to show another side of ourselves,” the grittier side, and that it’s important in World Cups to show multiple sides.
He said: “We didn’t quite get our pressure right. [Yunus] Musah was dropping low, and we got a little bit stretched without the ball, and [Weston] McKennie pulling a little bit wider caused us a little bit of a problem, which we needed to resolve at halftime, so we needed to be more aggressive on our pressure, a bit more compact as a team. Obviously [Christian] Pulisic comes into clever areas with [Antonee] Robinson going outside him as well, so there’s a lot of questions for the players to answer within the game, and we just felt in that second half of the first half, if you like, we weren’t sorting those problems out quite well enough, which gave America a little bit of possession a bit deeper. They’re a threat in those transitions because of the speed and the individual ability, but we dealt with that in the main.”
As a closing emblem on the other end in added time, Harry Kane’s header off a free kick went wide left, never even shouting hello to the goalmouth, and Southgate wound up praising the aspects of Kane less sexy than all the goals: “His hold-up play and the headers that he won and his defending in our box as well were still crucial for the team. So as is often the way with him, there are other elements to his game other than the goals that are so important for us.”
Through it all, England’s poster play might have come in the 59th minute, when Pulisic blasted one just left of the goal and England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford wound up deciding he had seen better defense in his day, probably even during six loans out from Sunderland between 2011 and 2017, probably even in Darlington or Preston North End. He pointed to his brain as if encouraging his teammates to use theirs, and now a similar and brief period of national analysis can follow. Good thing the citizenry has honed the knack.
World Cup in Qatar
World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.
Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.
Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.