England Gets a Look at Itself, and Isn’t Sure It Likes What It Sees

That this squad is a little older, a little wiser, is perhaps best illustrated by its choice of pastime. In Russia, four years ago, the players spent their downtime on the video game Fortnite, all bright colors and cartoon gore; here, they have been playing Werewolf, a taut, slow-burning psychological party game in which the aim is to hide your true identity (which is that you are a werewolf). This is a team at ease with itself.

In the white heat of a World Cup, particularly one as condensed as this, that counts for something. England was not the most attractive team at the 2018 World Cup; it did not cut a swath through its opposition. Instead, it was solid and unyielding and scored from corners; but still, it could gradually build momentum, a sense of something happening, that transmitted itself to the fans, both on the ground and watching on television. World Cups, particularly for a country operating under as much pressure as England, are about vibes.

The risk now is that the energy changes, as a consequence not so much of Friday’s result against the United States but of the performance. This, in stark contrast to Iran, was the England that the fans had feared would appear in Qatar: hesitant, reluctant, its caution recast not as a virtue but as a vice.

There are, of course, mitigating circumstances. England, for one, is not likely to be the last of the favorites to find it difficult to maintain its form when afforded only two full days’ rest between games. Nor would it be the only team to struggle to find much fluency when faced with an opponent as organized and as ferocious in its pressing as the United States.

And yet those mitigating factors are not quite sufficient to assuage the doubts. That England was struggling both to assert control and to create chances was obvious not long after halftime; still, though, Southgate proved reluctant to turn to the vast array of firepower stockpiled on his bench. He stood, and he watched, and he waited.

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