World Cup 2022: England have been dire for 237 days - it might not be the worst thing in the world

Are England back in business after Monday night’s draw with Germany? Honestly, who knows...

Like a bone idle schoolboy on the eve of a decisive exam, England’s preparatory time is up - and its hard to shake the gnawing doubt that they may not have done enough to get a passing grade.

This UEFA Nations League campaign has been less “Three Lions on a shirt” and more “Felines in a hessian sack dumped in a canal”. To say optimism surrounding the national team is low at the moment would be an understatement. Even Scotland have enjoyed more auspicious fortunes of late.

England haven’t won a game of football since March. By the time they face Iran in Qatar on November 21st, it will have been 237 days since they tasted victory. Understandably, pressure on manager Gareth Southgate has mounted exponentially in the interm slump.

Calls for his departure have only been tempered by his bulging reserve of prior goodwill and a steadfast insistence that it would be too late to get anyone else in anyways, which kind of feels like letting a balloon artist officiate your wedding because you accidentally called the wrong number in the yellow pages.

In other words, there’s no point shutting the (South)gate when the horse has already bolted. But maybe, just maybe, things aren’t as dreadful as the last six months would have us believe.

On Monday evening, in a fixture that straddled the divide between “absolute dead rubber” and “pointedly vital litmus test” with sinister aplomb, England hosted Germany at Wembley. For 70 minutes, it went about as well as you might have expected.

And then, in a staggering twist of transfiguration, Southgate’s side started playing... well. From two goals down, the Three Lions clawed their way back into a late, slender lead, and probably would have dug their heels in for a famous comeback had Nick Pope not decided to unveil his uncanny impression of a squash court wall in the dying stages.

For a manager in the dock and a team who have toiled abjectly in recent times, this was something of a Mike Bassett moment; an epiphanic realisation of the latent virtues within, a timely manifestation of a hitherto lacking ruthlessness. Almost.

Twenty minutes of promise don’t atone for half a year of dross, but that fleeting glimpse of something resembling a swagger, that defibrillation of a twitching, dead-eyed resolve, might just be enough to restore a thimble’s worth of hope as England drag themselves into the World Cup like the torso of a legless zombie.

It’s not braaaaaaains that Southgate craves, however, but rather a defence dominated by the comedic stylings of Harry Maguire. The manager insists on keeping faith in the Manchester United centre-back even as a mountain of incontrovertible evidence and the weight of public opinion rail and rally against him. Liz Truss watches on with admiration.

At this point, I’m even starting to work under the theory that Southgate might actually despise Maguire, and secretly garners some kind of perverse thrill from subjecting Ol’ Slabhead to this unending Sisyphean penance.

In fairness to the 29-year-old, there were some aspects of his performance against Germany that were praiseworthy. His distribution, for instance, was ranged, accurate, and on occasion, downright admirable.

But he’s not in this England side to act as a kind of Easter Island head quarterback, he’s there to defend, and in those sequences, Maguire continues to conduct himself with the poise and precision of a protagonist in a shelved body-swap farce about a baby donkey and a haunted fridge-freezer.

Call it ring rust, call it shredded nerves, but the justification for his inclusion grows fainter by the hour, especially when certain other players can’t get so much as a look in.

On Monday, as Maguire clattered through Jamal Musiala with all the subtlety and spacial awareness of a bull moose in an office cubicle - conceding a penalty in dumbstruck calamity - the muttering of a frazzled, poorly pronounced Shakespearean soliloquy rose in throats across the nation; Tomori and Tomori and Tomori...

Behind Maguire, Nick Pope now has about as much chance as the actual Pope with regards to displacing Jordan Pickford’s number one this winter. (Insert joke about collecting crosses here.) At right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold has done absolutely everything he can to convince Southgate of his worth. Except play well. Although, to be fair to the Liverpool talisman, that’s not always a prerequisite for the manager’s approval.

In attack, Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous effect on Sterling has seemingly spread to Raheem’s finishing prowess, while poor Ivan Toney’s brief dalliance with the national team has been less “Soprano”, more “Adams on Strictly”.

But those are just the negatives, and in spite of downward trends and looming ennui, there were positives too.

After a short spell of shaky readjustment, Luke Shaw, against all accepted wisdom, looked good at left wing-back, while Declan Rice continues to impress with his understated role as the Three Lions’ midfield enforcer.

Beside him, somebody needs to get Jude Bellingham a multi-million pound sponsorship deal with bubblewrap pronto because that freakishly composed boy prince cannot get injured between now and November.

Particular acclaim should be reserved for Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount, who entered the fray with the lunatic zeal of a pair of roman candles shoved through a letterbox, and arguably swung the momentum of proceedings in England’s favour.

Where all of this leaves Southgate and his capricious contingent is hard to say. The head cannot simply brush off those 237 days in the doldrums, even if the heart refuses to falter in its foolish romanticism.

In a bizarre sense, Monday’s riveting draw with the Germans might be the best result the manager could have hoped for; just enough luminescence to stave off the gloomiest of harbingers, not enough to diminish the heaviness of the lingering doubt dangling overhead. It ushers in some perspective while inadvertently easing the pressure somewhat.

If there’s one thing we do well in this country, it’s pessimism. At least if we saunter listlessly into the World Cup with no expectations, anything beyond a group stage catastrophe will feel like a welcome bonus.