Lof­tus-Cheek on the prowl but his men­ac­ing in­tent goes un­re­warded

‘Shy’ mid­fielder joins Abra­ham in show­ing big stage holds no ter­rors, writes Barney Ronay

The Guardian - Sport - - Football -

The kids are – sort of – all right. At times, per­haps even a lit­tle bet­ter than all right. Gareth South­gate has of­ten been por­trayed as a strik­ingly beige fig­ure in his short Eng­land reign, an FA in­sider bring­ing with him all the chin-stroking touch­line charisma of a friendly, doomed sup­ply teacher who re­ally hopes ev­ery­one will stop talk­ing and lis­ten to him dis­cuss sed­i­men­tary rock pat­terns if he just stands here and frowns for a bit longer.

This, though, was a good mo­ment for South­gate, and a bold one too. On a crisp, fun night at Wem­b­ley his en­forced gam­ble was a suc­cess. The se­lec­tion of the most in­ex­pe­ri­enced Eng­land team in 40 years to take on the world cham­pi­ons could have ended in dis­as­ter. Make no mis­take, his was in its own way an as­ton­ish­ing se­lec­tion. In Ruben-Lof­tusCheek Eng­land had a No10 who has only ever started two league matches that his team has ended up win­ning. Both of them, oddly enough, against As­ton Villa. Eng­land’s main cre­ative thrust here, their pivot, their rain­maker came to Wem­b­ley with one league goal to his name.

In front of him Tammy Abra­ham and Jamie Vardy made up a piece­meal, oddly en­gag­ing front three. Vardy was play­ing for Stock­bridge Park Steels the same year Abra­ham joined Chelsea’s youth set up aged eight. Abra­ham has played just 13 Pre­mier league games. He still looks like a teenager, skinny legs flap­ping gamely as he chased and har­ried in the open­ing sec­onds.

He made a ter­ri­ble start too. As open­ing acts of your in­ter­na­tional de­but go, miss­ing an open goal from five me­tres out is prob­a­bly not what you’d hope to get in the sweep­stake. It re­ally was on a plate for Abra­ham too. Vardy made a fine snip­ing run down the left, cut in­side, looked up and put a per­fect low cross be­tween two de­fend­ers. The pass was a gift. Abra­ham air-kicked with the goal gap­ing.

But more im­por­tantly he didn’t stop, kept go­ing, chased ev­ery pass, tried con­stantly to link with Vardy again. And this was the tenor of Eng­land’s youth­ful at­tack in an en­gag­ing first half. Lof­tusCheek and Abra­ham may or may not go on to have long in­ter­na­tional ca­reers. The fu­ture re­mains en­tirely open. But they will al­ways have a first half here where nei­ther froze or stopped or felt the weight of the op­po­si­tion.

Lof­tus-Cheek, in par­tic­u­lar was a fas­ci­nat­ing pres­ence. He may have touched the ball in the open­ing nine min­utes. But if so only briefly in be­tween shut­tling around call­ing for a pass and fail­ing to get one. His first sig­nifi­ant in­volve­ment saw him es­say an am­bi­tious dinked pass that bounced put of play over the goal line.

Af­ter which Lof­tus-Cheek, right, did OK, for a man with pretty much zero ex­pe­ri­ence of start­ing a game at this level and on this stage. He was de­scribed, a lit­tle omi­nously, as both “shy”and “calm” by his club and coun­try man­agers be­fore this game. But he showed a ballsi­ness here in snap­ping up the No10 shirt on his de­but – and play­ing like one too, lurk­ing in that in-be­tween space, call­ing for the ball, mak­ing him­self avail­able for a pass ev­ery time. And, it must be said, not re­ally get­ting one. Re­peat­edly in the first half Lof­tus-Cheek might have been given the ball mak­ing each time the same im­plor­ing ges­ture with his hands. Eng­land just didn’t seem to see him, or feel his mag­netism on the pitch. But then this is not a team that gen­er­ally plays with a No10, that feeds the ball through a play­maker au­to­mat­i­cally the way Ger­many do with Me­sut Özil

The con­trast was strik­ing at times. Ev­ery time Ger­many had the ball Özil would get a touch, act­ing as a rest­ing place, a muster point, and then the man to fi­nally play the for­ward pass. With Lof­tus-Cheek it all seemed more dif­fi­cult, more cramped. Ger­many know how to move the ball with this kind of player in the team. Eng­land’s strik­ers both dropped deep at times, clos­ing the space, driv­ing Lof­tus-Cheek out to the left.

Lof­tus-Cheek does have has some very dis­tinct at­tributes, famed for his “power runs” in pos­ses­sion, the surge past or through a tight de­fence, like a flank-for­ward burst­ing into open field He had his mo­ment at the end of the first half, gal­lop­ing through the mid­dle, find­ing a huge empty space in­side the area but just fail­ing to col­lect the ball as if it was fizzed into his feet. And re­ally, it is per­haps this vi­cious­ness he seems to lack in that role, the feeling that here is a player who will kill you if you give him

In the first half nei­ther froze, or stopped, or felt the weight of the op­po­si­tion

any space, any time. Un­sur­pris­ingly per­haps at this level. For all the froth about Eng­land’s usu­ally young team Ger­many had more play­ers on the pitch at the start un­der the age of 23.

Al­beit, by way of con­trast Timo Werner has 135 Bun­desliga ap­pear­ances, Josh Kim­mich has played 61 times for Bay­ern Mu­nich and Leroy Sané is, so far this sea­son, the best young player in Eng­land. And for all the pos­i­tives here it is Ger­many’s more sea­soned youth, a high class, three man front­line that skipped in and out of the gears with a com­pelling ease at times, who will ex­pect to end up in Rus­sia next

sum­mer.

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