It is becoming a tiresome repetition the way in which certain corners of the English media react when it comes to friendlies involving the Three Lions.
In the build up to Tuesday night’s game against France in the Stade de France, there was no lack of noting that this was an inconsequential encounter. It was even questioned why this fixture was being held after England’s World Cup qualifier against Scotland on Saturday, in which Gareth Southgate’s side rescued a late draw thanks to Harry Kane’s goal.
This was the last match of the English season to be played, and with plans in place for the French supporters to join in with their opponent’s national anthem following the recent terror attacks – a warm reciprocation for when English fans did the same following the Paris attacks in November 2015 – there was no dancing around the fact that this would be a good-natured, not-very-competitive wind down to a hectic nine months.
It was a chance for Gareth Southgate to experiment, and that he did, making six changes after the Scotland game, switching to a back-three (all the rage at present) as well as dropping an under-pressure Joe Hart and handing goal-keeping duties to Burnley man Tom Heaton.
England went on to lose 3-2, having played the majority of the second half against ten men, following Rafael Varane’s dismissal for his challenge on Deli Alli (a decision made using the VAR which was in use for the match).
France outclassed England. Pogba was magnificent in midfield, Dortmund attacker Ousmane Dembele was supreme, giving the England defence a torrid time, and Kylian Mbappe, who started up front, reminded viewers why some of Europe’s biggest clubs are currently looking to acquire his services.
France have more world class players than England and there is no doubting the quality in the French side is in much higher abundance. But these are things that were no secret before the match, so it would have been a big possibility that Les Blues could win, and win well.
But, a match such as this, that was meant to be an inconsequential and light-hearted game, quickly morphed into something far more relevant when the final whistle blew.
There is a real sense of doom and gloom with every post-mortem following a lacklustre England display, which in most cases is probably necessary. But following a friendly match which many people probably felt was largely irrelevant, the sense that everything is falling apart was perhaps blown out of proportion.
On BBC Radio 5 Live, following the match, Chris Waddle questioned the strength of the Premier League, stating that is not as strong as everyone thinks, and that the quality of the division is down to the players from abroad. This is a sentiment that is invariably expressed following any poor England performance, but perhaps in this case it could be considered excessive, given that Southgate was putting out an experimental side.
BBC’s chief football writer Phil McNulty, in an article on the BBC sport website, put forward that France’s quality was a “painful reminder” for those affiliated with the England team. But, as mentioned before, there was no doubt that the ability in the French ranks far surpassed that of Southgate’s resources before a ball had been kicked.
England came away from Hamden Park on Saturday with a largely positive result against a struggling Scotland team who are in real danger of missing out on World Cup qualification. Had the France game not been played, spirits amongst the English media would arguably have been much higher. They are top of their qualification group by two points, have not lost a major tournament qualifier in 20 games, and their next game is in September away to Malta who haven’t recorded a single point in their six games so far.
Playing the likes of France and Spain gives Southgate the opportunity to pit his team against some of the world’s best players. Friendlies, contrary to the likely opinion of many others, do have a purpose. This defeat to France should be considered as information gained, rather than momentum lost.
David Newman, Pundit Arena