From minute one in Guimaraes, in front of a crowd predominantly sporting the St George’s cross, England were outplayed by their Dutch counterparts. Those donned in orange shirts dominated the ball and bossed the midfield, but it was ultimately costly mistakes that became England’s own undoing in Portugal.
England have become allergic to appearing in finals of international competitions, and once again it looked like it could be against Gareth Southgate’s side.
Once again, much like in Russia twelve months earlier, it was looking similar to a case of coming so close and yet still not quite being able to get over that final hurdle.
That’s why England’s opening goal came so against the run of play.
Marcus Rashford may not have had a good finish to the season domestically, as he watched himself and his Manchester United teammates fumble their way miserably to a poor league finish.
However, in an England shirt, he had all the hunger of a striker playing at his finest – even if he was starved of service for much of the game.
Pouncing on a highly uncharacteristic mistake by Ajax’s young rock Matthijs de Ligt, he brought the ball beyond the outstretched recovery swing of the Dutch defender and earned a stonewall penalty. The obligatory VAR check had to happen, but there was no circumstance under the sun it wasn’t a spot kick.
Rashford picked himself up and dusted off the heavy knock that had left him in some discomfort, before dispatching confidently past Netherlands goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.
The Three Lions had the lead, if undeserved, and the Estadio D. Afonso Henriques erupted. There was an overwhelming majority of England supporters packed into its 30,000 seats.
Even despite the lead though, Ronald Koeman’s Netherlands pressed the ball. Their creative spark in the midfield created and connived to fashion space in and around the England team.
Their counterparts in white – Ross Barkley, Declan Rice and Fabian Delph – simply didn’t to anywhere the same extent.
As such, when a second half corner to the Dutch ended with de Ligt rising highest and powering a bullet header into the near side of Jordan Pickford’s goal, nobody could say they were surprised. Or they were lying if they did.
England were off the boil, and struggling to create, and as such their opponents punished them.
Then came a moment of contention. England, with easily their best fashioned chance of the entire game, slotted in substitute Jesse Lingard, who thought he’d won the semi-final for the Three Lions with just eight minutes left on the clock.
It was the kind of fluid, attacking move that England had sorely missed throughout the game, but there was yet to be a cruel twist.
Upon the mandatory VAR check, Lingard was seen to be questionably offside. It was a tight call against Dutch full back Denzel Dumfries, but there was an argument there to be made that he was half a yard at most ahead of the defence. That was the view of the officials too, and the goal was chalked off. England’s finest attacking move of the game, which looked like it had won them the match, stood for nothing anymore.
Infuriating for England fans, but there a tight call to be made, and if it had been the Netherlands scoring a late goal, those same supporters would have been outraged if the goal had stood.
Extra time came calling as a result, and that’s where the wheels came off for England truly.
John Stones, who’d had another shaky game – as he has done in a number of games in recent times both domestically and internationally – lost the plot, is probably the best way of describing it.
We all know he has been fashioned into the ball-playing defender model of centre back at Manchester City. Southgate wants to play that style too; the modern evolution of the man at the back, who carries it out and plays as much as the midfield.
That’s lovely, and it makes for beautiful football when it works, but it also asks for mistakes to happen.
Even the best in the world do so. On the opposite team – in de Ligt and Virgil van Dijk – two of arguably the world’s best in this role were lined up, and England’s opening goal had come from a similar mistake of that nature.
Stones, despite the patriotic, rose-tinted glasses of many England supporters, is not one of the best in the world. He’s error prone under pressure; not great for a position and style of play that requires defenders to be cool under pressure.
That shakiness came to the forefront as clear as day against the Netherlands in extra time. Stones dallied on the ball initially, having had an age to clear it to safety, before turning towards his goalkeeper and simply allowing the ball to be stolen away from him by Memphis Depay.
Initially, the Manchester City defender was bailed out by a great save by Pickford to deny the Dutch, but the ball bounced across the box and the sheer pace of winger Quincy Promes allowed him to barrel his way to the ball and, via a helpful redirection from Kyle Walker’s knee, bundle it into the back of the net.
England suddenly found themselves for the first time in the game behind and it was entirely from their own calamitous creation.
The Dutch third covered England in no greater light either. Again Stones involved, he played an underweight pass to Barkley on the edge of the box, before the Chelsea man’s own backpass towards goal was lacking the necessary power.
The Netherlands pounced and one simply ball across the box allowed Promes to smash home the third for the Dutch and earn himself his place on the scoresheet, having seen his earlier strike ultimately recorded as a Walker own goal.
Within the space of extra time, England had gone from a side being outplayed to a side that looked completely unaware how to play the game of football.
It has to be a worry for Southgate, who wants to play this attacking style of football – and yes, mistakes and bad games will happen – but even removing the mistakes in this match, the Netherlands were without question the better side throughout.
Against top opposition, England just don’t seem to have the cutting edge required. It very much seems to be the usual case that easy qualification processes papering over the cracks, and that’s why the Nations League format will be so interesting, as England face up much more regularly against tougher opponents, for better or worse results-wise.
Either way, I do believe that this should be the end of Stones’ time, at least for a lengthy period, in the England setup. He’s too much of a liability at the back, and there are English defenders at lower clubs in the Premier League who arguably deserve their chance instead.
Sure, a lot of those aren’t necessarily the ball-playing centre backs Southgate wants, but in many ways, given how costly mistakes from that role have been in this game and previously, a no-nonsense central defender to partner these more creative forces might be just what England needs to steady the defensive ship because right now it’s sprung a quite serious leak.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Southgate’s England selection and Stones in particular. However, while my opinion would be to cut the Manchester City man, the current England manager is loyal to his chosen players and so I can’t see much change on the horizon – which does worry me for improving the current problem.