England were good, but what was the point of friendly against the Netherlands?

Pre-tournament friendlies are scheduled with the intention of learning new things, becoming familiar with potential tactics and providing an opportunity for players on the fringes of what would be the preferred starting eleven. Did any of these things happen against the Dutch?

England were good, but what was the point of friendly against the Netherlands?
England players congratulation Jesse Lingard upon scoring his first international goal | Photo: Getty images / M-Images

There ceased to be a better indicator of the disinterest in England’s friendly with the Netherlands than Gareth Southgate being forced to spend much of the pre-match dialogue talking more about the foreign secretary than the actual game of football.

Perhaps all those who decided to watch should have taken the hint. The Three Lions played relatively well and thus deserved their 1-0 victory earned courtesy of the only true moment of quality at the Amsterdam Arena. Jesse Lingard swept a well-struck half-volley beyond Jeroen Zoet from 20 yards slightly prior to the hour to score his first senior England goal and was otherwise the star performer.

But it was scarcely a game filled with unmitigated excitement. There were no flashes of brilliance and, if anything, it was just further proof of how far these two have fallen from being well renowned footballing nations. England were only made to look slightly better than they actually were by a Dutch side so poor, idle and seemingly wholly disinterested by the occasion. For Oranje it was meant to be a symbol of a new beginning, a fresh start, under Ronald Koeman but instead they still seemed to be suffering from their failure to qualify for consecutive major tournaments.

England battled their way to victory without doing anything spectacular. They passed their way around the pitch, the movement from the front three was good but there was a lack of ruthlessness when they moved inside the final third. A wayward cross from Danny Rose which, had it possessed better quality, could have given any one of three players a tap-in epitomised the average quality of an England side still trying to convince the nation. 

So what was the point?

Pre-tournament friendlies are scheduled with the intention of learning new things, becoming familiar with potential tactics and providing an opportunity for players on the fringes of what would be the preferred starting eleven. However, England and Southgate only succeeded in doing one of those things. It was chances for the likes of Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Joe Gomez and Kieran Trippier that saved the whole exercise from being rendered completely pointless, but only the Manchester United midfielder significantly impressed.

None of the pre-match questions were answered and nothing new was learned. Did Rashford play well enough to guarantee himself a regular starting place? No. He only started because Harry Kane is injured. Is Jordan Pickford suitably competent to start in goal at the World Cup? Nobody knows; the Dutch attack was so incompetent that England could have started any of their four goalkeepers and none would have had sufficient opportunity to audition for the Three Lions’ number one shirt. Are England actually any good? Who knows?

In fact, Southgate provided ammunition for further questions while failing to offer convincing answers to the ones already being asked. The former Middlesbrough boss opted for the back three that will most likely start in Russia – although most likely with different personnel - but included Kyle Walker as one of the three centre-backs while Trippier played as a wing-back.

The Netherlands’ lack of attacking potency meant the back three remained untested so it is unclear whether the triplet of Walker, Gomez and John Stones would be a success at the World Cup. While Walker remained composed on the ball, passed accurately and with purpose, and offered runs from deep into the channel, his dynamic approach is much better served in the wing-back role where he provides a genuine attacking threat. And for all Tripper’s excellent ability to cross a ball, his lack of everything else that Walker offers makes his performances as a wing-back underwhelming.

It could have been the perfect opportunity to start Harry Maguire in the back three with Stones but, although Maguire eventually made a premature appearance from the substitutes' bench in place of the injured Gomez, the Leicester City man was not utilised from the start. Maguire is likely to play a part at the World Cup so there would have been sense in giving him a chance to play in a three-man defence, something that he does not do at club level. 

In midfield, England started Lingard ahead of the deeper-lying pairing of Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Liverpool pair recycled possession well, passed forward on most occasions and won the ball efficiently. Lingard was given freedom to link up with Rashford and Raheem Sterling and they combined well without consistently threatening the Dutch, but the primary problem is that only Sterling is likely to start when England face Tunisia on 18 June.

Nothing new was learned. Everybody already knows that England are slightly above average at playing football. Everybody already knows that England pass and combine with more ease and generally look better when playing with a back three. Everybody already knows that England are capable of beating the top sides but very rarely do when it matters.

Pre-tournament friendlies have an incrementally growing reputation for doing exactly the opposite of what they are organised to achieve. And with just three games to go until England begin their quest to become world champions, there is still a striking lack of identity. 

England face Italy at Wembley on Tuesday and it will most likely be a very similar story. Southgate will make vast changes, England will probably dominate possession against a side notorious for defending deep, and the Three Lions will most probably edge to an unconvincing victory against a side incomparable with any of those that they will face in Russia this summer. It is purely England versus another fallen footballing giant.

So when Glenn Hoddle tries to convince you with mildly cringe-worthy cliches during commentary that “this is a massive game” and “this is not a friendly for these players, they will be looking to nail down their World Cup place”, it is not, and yes, quite clearly, it is. It will be the same friendly, played at an intermediate tempo and nobody will learn anything new. Only when England get to Russia will anybody know just how good this Three Lions team is.