As concerns over social distancing and flight restrictions continue to surround Euro 2020, John Stones gave everyone the opportunity to construct their own joke when he soared high above the Scotland defence with no one particularly near him in the 11th minute at Wembley on Friday.
The England centre-back’s jump was slightly mis-timed, though, and his header from a right-wing corner crashed against the post.
Worryingly for Gareth Southgate – well, as worried as it’s sensible to be with four points on the board from two games in a group stage format lacking too much jeopardy – that was the closest the hosts came to breaking the deadlock in a 0-0 draw that crackled away without ever truly catching fire.
When England reached their first major tournament semi-final for 28 years at the 2018 World Cup, it felt churlish to complain that they often lacked threat from open play. Goals from well-constructed set-pieces count the same and there was an exciting generation of attacking talent on the way.
And yet, as Phil Foden and Mason Mount schemed against a disciplined Scotland with typical intelligence and craft, as Wembley clamour for Jack Grealish was sated midway through the second half and as Jadon Sancho inexplicably remained an unused substitute, here we were.
Rabid debate is now sure to follow over how England’s support attackers should be configured, but concern might be better directed towards one of Southgate’s untouchables.
When Harry Kane trudged off to be replaced by Marcus Rashford in the 74th minute, it was surprising only because of his deserved status as one of the finest centre-forwards in world football, not at all because of his performance.
In the first half, no player had fewer than Kane’s 10 touches. That tally edged up to 19 by the time he departed and everything in between had been horribly laboured – even when Scotland bodies briefly appeared to part and his tired left-footed shot was blocked before the hour.
The opening two Group D games are the first time since last November that Kane has not managed a shot on target in a consecutive matches. Those games were against Chelsea and Manchester City.
If Kane is tired, it would be understandable. Among players classed as forwards by Opta in the Premier League, only Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins (3,329) and his Tottenham colleague Son Heung-min (3,121) played more than his 3,085 top-flight minutes in 2020-21.
The fact is that Scotland’s unheralded front two Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams comfortably outplayed Kane and both came closer to scoring – QPR’s Dykes in particular when he forced Reece James into a goalline clearance.
Kane’s reputation as a creator has blossomed in recent years – he topped the Premier League standings for goals and assists last term – and he laid on a 55th-minute chance from which James should have done far better.
Still, his overall contribution, on and off the ball, was negligible, as England plodded about the turf ponderously deep, unable to muster more than Mount’s solitary shot on target early in the second period.
The Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips midfield axis worked to fine effect in nullifying and overpowering Luka Modric and Croatia’s arch schemers at the weekend. In the knockout stages, they could be vital in tandem once more, but as this match ticked by it felt like an excess of insurance.
As was the case during some of the less triumphant moments in Russia, Southgate stuck with his shape when dropping Mount deeper and deploying Grealish in tandem with Foden instead of sacrificing the Manchester City youngster looked like the best way to open up the contest.
Southgate’s decision to stick rather than twist in-game is not a new problem, nor was the lack of creativity to which it contributed. However, they were issues that did not prevent England from going deep in the last World Cup or defeating its beaten finalists.
They are not new problems and are surmountable if all else is working well. On the other hand, an off-colour, non-threatening Kane is a new and growing problem and certainly not one England can continue to absorb if they want to bring football “home” or even to a vaguely agreeable postcode.
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