On a warm night in Paris, an exhibition between France and England put a lot more on show than Gareth Southgate would have liked to see… and perhaps delivered his most stark reality check yet.
Despite playing almost an entire half without an eleventh man, France outperformed England exquisitely, delivering waves of attacks brimming with speed, flair, confidence and a ruthless eye for goal. Such a performance against England goes to show how far they have come since their comedy of errors in 2010, and how close they are to toppling the elite of Germany, Brazil and Argentina.
Southgate entered this game with almost a full strength squad on show. Harry Kane captained a lineup containing Delle Alli, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier and Gary Cahill, to name a few. He seemed to view this game as a reason to test how his side would fare against the very best.
The answer was much the same; in the big games, England will once again fail to deliver.
Despite taking the lead after 9 minutes through (almost predictably) Kane, France began to grow. Kylian Mbappe showed all his raw brilliance, N’Golo Kante sat deep and mopped up, while Paul Pogba ran the show from the middle. After 20 minutes, it was 1-1, and on the stroke of half time, France were ahead.
Even after the dismissal of Raphael Varane for a last-man foul on Alli, France remained in control, a fact which will trouble Southgate enormously.
The biggest problem Southgate faces is choosing his defence. Joe Hart’s frailties were exposed against Scotland, but the backup options are more likely to send him into a quandary. Tom Heaton was admirable against France, but at 31 is unlikely to provide a long term foil.
The situation is then placed between Fraser Forster, Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford. Forster is 29 and has cut it well with Celtic and Southampton. Butland and Pickford are 24 and 23 respectively and are well established as first choice for their clubs. Of the three, Butland looks the more likely given his experience on Olympic duty and with Stoke City.
At the back, the four that began the night were run ragged on a night when France chose to leave out Antoine Griezmann and Alexandre Lacazette. Truly worrying for the Three Lions.
John Stones was pushed under the spotlight given the extent of the torture given to him by Mbappe. The injury he suffered during April seemed to reflect his game; he was slow to react, and overrun by Mbappe. Gary Cahill looked short of his dominant best too.
Yet the pair are for the present, and Stones most certainly for the future. Southgate must surely have cast out the idea that Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have anything more to provide his team. The United duo – stricken by injuries and inconsistency – must now watch as their former junior, Michael Keane, now steps forward to be recognised as the future of the England defence.
But Southgate, for all his admirable realism, must be able to teach his side to step up in the big games. All too often have England strode to qualifying dominance, only to have their frailties ripped open and their abilities once again interrogated by the stream of critics who believe England simply cannot cut it against the worlds elite.
1 year on from Euro 2016 debacle, and another year from the World Cup of 2018, are England any closer to being even a respectable team in world competition. Right now? No.