"I think today we saw a lot of positive signs as a team, a lot of good individual displays. Personally, I think our game today was another step in the right direction."
Gareth Southgate said these words a few minutes after the England national team, which he has coached for the past 6 years, lost 1:0 to Italy on Friday, dropped to second tier in the Nations League and looked at a loss, less than two months before the start of the World Cup.
And he said this despite the boos he received from the fans at the San Siro stadium.
On the one hand, you can understand Southgate, who saw the statistics sheet before standing in front of the microphone.
England kicked 14 times towards the goal compared to Italy's 10 kicks.
She also had possession 56 percent of the time.
On the other hand, Southgate knows that in football what matters is the result and the number of goals you score, not the number of kicks or the percentage of ball possession.
He also knows that another loss, this evening at Wembley against Germany, and the media will begin to deal seriously with his status, and with the question of whether the time has come to fire him and appoint an emergency coach.
All this despite the fact that England's opening game in the World Cup, against Iran, will be in just 57 days.
As much as the Nations League is perceived as a negligible tournament, the data still cannot be ignored: England has not won 5 games in a row, which include two losses to Hungary, including a 4:0 home defeat to the Magyars - the team's heaviest home loss in 94 years!
To put things into perspective, England have not had such a disappointing run in official matches for 30 years.
But what is no less worrying - England is not conquering.
In the last five games, the only goal that England scored was Harry Kane's penalty in the 88th minute against Germany.
There is only one other team in Europe that did not score a goal in the Nations League without a penalty in this period - San Marino.
Sterling is struggling against the Italians.
One goal in the last 12 games, photo: IPA
Unbelievable, but Southgate's team has failed to score a field goal for 495 consecutive minutes.
The last time she did not score at all in 3 consecutive games was 22 years ago.
Just 14 months ago, England came within touching distance of winning the European Championship, but lost the penalty shootout against Italy at Wembley.
The disappointment was huge, but the feeling was that the Three Lions team is making great progress, after in the 2018 World Cup in Russia they reached the semi-finals, for the first time in 28 years.
Commentators passionately argued that the logical next step after a semi-final in 2018 and a final in 2021 should be winning the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
To strengthen the argument, they added the impressive achievements of the young teams in recent years and talked about the "golden generation" of English football.
But then came the last five games, turning sweeping optimism into bitter pessimism.
One thing is clear: Southgate's squad is high-quality, it features players who are stars in the Premier League and the Bundesliga (Jude Bellingham), but the spirit that characterized the team in the Euros has disappeared.
Beyond that, Southgate is not closed on his optimal formation.
Sometimes he plays with 3-4-3 and sometimes he prefers 1-3-2-4, and players are moved to positions they are not really familiar with.
And it's not about a desire to diversify, but about deliberations that haven't ended yet.
And the latest results do not bring him closer to the final decision.
Receives scorn from the fans, photo: IPA
And if everyone continues to pour praise on Bellingham, the 19-year-old midfielder of Borussia Dortmund, who seems to be the best quality player in the team, there are quite a few criticisms of other players.
For example, no one understands why Harry Maguire, who has no place in the Manchester United squad, continues to start in the national team.
Harry Kane has looked excellent in a Tottenham shirt, but when he wears the national shirt in recent months, he hardly manages to score.
His last goal that wasn't from the penalty spot was in November almost a year ago, against the same San Marino.
And what about Raheem Sterling?
Chelsea's new striker scored only one goal in his last 12 games for the national team.
Arsenal's Bocayo Sake is one of the best quality players that English football has to offer, but the experiment of placing him as a left winger against Italy was strange and certainly not crowned with success.
Southgate hopes the return to Wembley will do his players good.
The defeat against Hungary was recorded at Wolves' Molineux Stadium, while at Wembley England have not lost in 15 games in a row, winning 13 of them.
But beyond a good result, what Southgate wants to see tonight at Wembley is an improved team ability.
Because it really doesn't suit him to hear boos for the third time in a row, and precisely in the last instrument test, before the biggest show in the world starts.
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