MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Gareth Southgate has a plan. It involves solidity, and keeping things tight, and a back three with wingbacks and two hard-working tough-tackling midfielders. It is his plan, and he likes it — almost as much as he likes right-backs.
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It is a decent enough plan, on the face of it. But unfortunately for him, and for England, it is a plan that doesn't have much to commend it when the opposition bang in a couple of twenty-yarders early in the piece. Which is exactly what Belgium did.
If you're in the mood to take England positives, you could probably claim that the plan worked, as far as that goes: Belgium didn't thrash England, didn't humiliate them, didn't tear them to pieces. But then, they didn't need to. They got their goals and could just play the game away, holding England at arm's length like a flailing child.
You could even claim, with some justification, that Belgium were lucky. The first goal - for Youri Tielemans - came via a couple of deflections and the inside of the post; the second - for Dries Mertens - was rather soft, as free-kicks go. Declan Rice gave the foul away and got kicked in the leg, which doesn't seem altogether fair. But before the game, Southgate was clear on what he wants for England against strong opposition:
Our aim is to be the best team in the world and we've got to hunt these teams down.
Southgate: Grealish 'outstanding' in England loss to Belgium
And the thing about these teams, your Belgiums and suchlike, is you don't always get to do your hunting from 0-0. England were able to overcome a one-goal deficit last month at Wembley, but they rarely looked like doubling the trick this time around. We're allocating blame equally between a weird system totally lacking in pace, and everybody being completely knackered. In November.
If you want a real positive, then there's always Jack Grealish. His first competitive start for England, and he was, frankly, gorgeous. So gorgeous, in fact, that we feel confident in saying that Southgate will have abandoned any other plans in favour of a new approach: Grealishball. Pick the defence and midfield most likely to get the ball to Grealish, pick the strikers that he'll be best at passing to. Reorient the entire team — the entire country — around him.
Sure, Southgate's current plan might bring the occasional clean sheet. But the new plan maximises this sort of thing, and that, we think, is what England really need.
Twang, sprain, ouch
Of course, as much as the Nations League is a fine tournament with a long and proud tradition, we're betting that most of the country was watching England with at least one eye on the injuries. Maybe they should add a little scoreboard for that, up in the top right.
And hey, England probably won on the injuries. Hooray?
As seems to be happening a lot at the moment, Liverpool are having to adjust their plans again, after Jordan Henderson was withdrawn at half-time with an unspecified muscle injury. Somebody much cleverer than the Warm-Up once said that defending a title is harder than winning one, and the gods seem to be doing their best to prove it.
Ben Chilwell didn't even make it to half-time: he shuffled off after 38 minutes, holding his back and shaking his head. With England now in Nations League limbo — can't be relegated, can't win the group — a nation looks forward to spending the entirety of Wednesday's game against Iceland staring at that little scoreboard in the top right, desperately hoping that nothing happens as safely as possible.
All square in the WSL
Big weekend in the Women's Super League. Even bigger weekend for fans of score draws: you know who you are. Four of the top five played each other, sharing the goals and the points, while Everton, not wanting to be left out, drew 1-1 with Reading.
So we had a Manchester derby for which the term "game of two halves" could have been invented. City thumped United for 45 minutes, and then United sorted themselves out and returned the favour. Literally, in Tobin Heath's case. All this goal needs is a comic book bubble: KAPOW.
That draw meant that Arsenal could go top with a win against Chelsea, or Chelsea could move second with a win against Arsenal. Cue a cagey 85 minutes and then a breathless scramble, as Arsenal took a late lead and Chelsea picked up an even later equaliser thanks to a delicate, bamboozling chip from, er, Arsenal defender Lotte Wubben-Moy.
All this means that United stay top, and we're betting that if you'd offered Casey Stoney four points from games against Arsenal and City, she'd have taken your hand off just below the elbow so quickly that you wouldn't have felt a thing. Fortunately, nobody made her that offer, so she confined herself to some celebratory credit-sharing:
This is only our third year. Our expectations and visions haven't changed. We're just trying to stay in and around [the top] for as long as we can. It's huge credit to the group, this is massive.
IN OTHER NEWS
It's not easy, feeling sympathy for Sergio Ramos. It just doesn't seem right somehow. Yet here he is, on the night he became European men's football's most capped international, missing not one but two penalties. You have to feel for him, just a little. A very little. A tiny … no, no, okay. Fine. Laugh, you monsters.
Happy birthday to Paul Scholes, simultaneously the Premier League's most underrated and most overrated player. But hopefully we can all come together and agree that he could really kick a football.
Over to the Guardian for Paul Wilson's obituary of Ray Clemence: more than 600 games for Liverpool, more than 300 for Spurs, 61 caps for England, and a whole heap of medals. £300,000 would be an exciting transfer fee for a 33-year-old nowadays, let alone in 1981.
Though a more than capable shot-stopper, Clemence was one of those goalkeepers who read the game so well he did not always need to fling himself about the goalmouth. His anticipation usually meant he was in the right place at the right time, whether to collect a cross or to reach an attempt on goal. In his first full season at Anfield Liverpool equalled their own record of conceding only 24 goals in a 42-match campaign, and in 1978-79 they bettered that by some distance, winning the league while conceding ony 16 goals.
A quiet day of internationals in Europe, but there's a handful of Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers and the USA take on Panama. Also Plymouth play Portsmouth in League One.
After flicking the ball over his own head and riding the challenge, Marcus Foley will be here with the Warm-Up tomorrow.
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