England's limited midfield will keep them from winning Euro 2020
PRAGUE -- England are becoming accustomed to reality checks, but they don't seem to be learning from them.
Friday's 2-1 away defeat against the Czech Republic, after FC Dallas striker Zdenek Ondrasek netted an 85th-minute winner for the home side, left England still needing at least one more victory in Group A to be certain of qualification for Euro 2020.
If they get it against Bulgaria in Sofia on Monday, and Kosovo fail to beat Montenegro in Pristina, then Gareth Southgate's men will book their place in next summer's finals. It's a tournament in which they will play three group games at Wembley so long as they maintain their seeded status and, if they progress, the semifinal and final at their home stadium too.
But this defeat in the Czech capital, which was England's first qualification loss since a 1-0 reverse against Ukraine in October 2009, offered several reminders of why this side remains some distance from being a truly competitive team at the highest level.
Southgate, at least, was realistic about the Three Lions' failings after the game.
"We didn't use the ball well enough," Southgate said. "And in terms of a wake-up call, I think we've had a lot of plaudits, but we've always maintained that there's a lot of work to be done to be a really top team. I think tonight was clear evidence of that. We have to respond in the right way."
In many ways, it was the same story when England lost 2-1 to Croatia in the World Cup semifinal in Moscow in 2018 and again this summer, when the Netherlands secured a 3-1 win in the Nations League semifinal in Guimaraes to deny England a place in the inaugural final of UEFA's new tournament. On each occasion, and against the Czechs, England's inability to control the game from midfield proved their downfall.
But in Prague, where England have never beaten the Czechs since their first meeting against the old Czechoslovakia in 1934, there were even more alarm bells ringing.
Both full-backs -- Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier -- were poor defensively and in possession, prompting questions over their selection for this game ahead of the more in-form Ben Chilwell and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Kyle Walker, the treble-winning right-back at Manchester City last season, failed to even make the squad. And in the heart of England's defence, Everton's Michael Keane simply looked well short of international class against Harry Maguire, the world's most expensive defender.
England's strengths -- their attacking options -- were largely nullified by the Czechs because the home side were able to control a midfield that was far too cautious and limited in the shape of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice.
Ranked 44th in the FIFA World Ranking, the Czech Republic are a competent team, but they are not the force of old, when they produced top-class players such as Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Patrik Berger. England have traditionally made easy work of teams ranked some distance below them, only failing when they come up against the established powers, but they were outsmarted and outplayed in every department by Jaroslav Silhavy's side, who lost 5-0 at Wembley earlier this year.
Liverpool captain Henderson has his qualities. He is a motivator and offers endless energy, but at this level, his passing range is painfully short of what is required. Those shortcomings would not be such a problem if he were deployed alongside a midfielder with the ability to dictate the tempo with his passing and ability to carry the ball forward, but his partner against the Czechs was Rice, who pretty much does the same job as Henderson.
Harry Winks, a Tottenham midfielder, was on the bench for this game, and he would have added some variety had he been given an opportunity alongside Henderson or Rice.
Beyond Winks, James Maddison, who withdrew from the squad due to illness, could make a difference, but he is yet to win his first cap, so it is too early to say whether he can be the man to make England more adventurous. The same applies to Manchester City's Phil Foden and Aston Villa's Jack Grealish. Both are talented players, but Foden rarely plays for City and Grealish has still to prove his consistency in the Premier League.
Jack Wilshere was always regarded as England's midfield saviour when he emerged as a youngster at Arsenal, but injuries and loss of form have made him a forgotten man on the international stage. Still, if he can find form and fitness at West Ham, Wilshere might -- but don't bank on it -- prove himself to be England's missing link after all.
But right now, England are too predictable and too easy to play against.
Midfields win games. The forwards may get the plaudits for their goals, but unless a midfield can control a game and dictate the play, the team will lose more than it wins.
Against inferior teams, England usually get away with it, but their luck ran out in Prague. And if they are to have any chance of winning Euro 2020, England simply have to find a way to do what they have not been able to do for so long: control a game from midfield.