Edgy England on verge of World Cup last 16 after fortunate draw with USA

It was a night when England succeeded in doing one thing: dousing the expectations that had built so suddenly after the thrashing of Iran in their opening World Cup tie. The stalemate means they will almost certainly qualify for the last 16 – only a heavy defeat against Wales next Tuesday would derail them – but there was precious little else to quicken the pulse.

England were flat, moving the ball backwards and sideways too often. They could not get around the blue shirts of the United States, failing to stretch them and it very quickly turned into a slog, marked by a lack of imagination.

Harry Kane had one early sighting and a huge chance late on – a free header from Luke Shaw’s curling free-kick that he headed wide. But that was the sum total of England’s threat on a night when the USA were the better team, impressing with their shape and discipline. They had the opportunities to have nicked it.

Gregg Berhalter’s team seemed to realise midway through the first half that they had England under control; there was little for them to worry about. And they set about getting on to the front foot, asking questions, making the England support squirm, at times. How different it could have been if Weston McKennie had shown greater composure on 26 minutes when addressing a shot on the bounce. He blazed high.

The USA will take tremendous heart into their showdown with Iran in the final round of group games. On this evidence, they will back themselves to get the win they need.

The England inquest will rage – they normally do – and there were boos from some fans at the final whistle. There were shades of the 0-0 with Scotland in the second tie at Euro 2020 and, in the final analysis, Southgate could be relieved that his team did not lose. The Iran result had offered a basis to fire momentum. Here, there was only a reality check. The hope had to be that it would not be a bad thing.

History had been a part of the equation. How many times had England previously beaten the USA at major tournaments, Southgate asked on Thursday. The answer was never. There had been two World Cup ties – the notorious defeat in 1950 and the underwhelming draw in 2010.

Southgate stuck with the starting lineup and system from the Iran game as he sought to end the hoodoo – back four and a progressive midfield (in theory). But it simply did not happen for them.

England wanted to open up the USA with quick, short passes and slick movements and they worked a decent opening at the outset, which might have brought a goal for Kane. Kieran Trippier and Jude Bellingham combined to free Bukayo Saka and Kane’s eyes lit up when the ball was pulled back. His shot, though, was blocked by Walker Zimmerman. Saka flickered in the early running. It was to be a false dawn.

England’s patterns came to look predictable; they played mainly in front of the USA and it was difficult to remember anybody beating a blue shirt. The USA held a high backline and squeezed in midfield, their pressure on the man in possession a major irritant to England. Southgate’s team groped for inspiration.

What a scene it was in the desert north of Doha, some way north in the city of Al Khor, the stadium resembling a giant tent from the outside and a vast amphitheatre inside – too vast, plainly, to sell all of the tickets. There were empty seats dotted all over.

With the retractable roof open, a cool breeze circulated. Southgate had noted how some of his best football experiences had come on nights like these, the colours vivid, the pitch pristine. This was not one of them.

The manager had predicted that the USA would bring a ferocious intensity but it was a measured approach from them, well structured and, as England stalled, Berhalter’s team made their move. It was the USA who called the tune in the second half of the first period and they had the chances to break the deadlock. Clear chances, too.

The big one followed a low cross from the right and there was McKennie, sniffing out space. His first-time shot was high and wasteful. Christian Pulisic bought a yard from Trippier and unloaded a shot from the left that rattled the crossbar and how the Chelsea winger would like his time again when he rose unmarked to meet a cross from the right. The connection was scruffy, the ball coming off his shoulder and flying off target.

Shaw teed up Saka, who lifted high, towards the end of the half and Mason Mount extended Matt Turner but England had to do more.

The USA grew in assurance. Their supporters turned up the volume and Pulisic urged them to rouse themselves further when he took a succession of second-half corners. He believed that the breakthrough was coming.

England lived a little dangerously on those corners, surviving with last-ditch headers. Jordan Pickford flapped at another. The USA counter-press became a defining motif of the game and it was startling to think, as the clock reached the halfway point of the second half, that England had barely got out of their half since the restart. The energy came from the USA, particularly Tyler Adams, a blaze of industry in front of the defence.

Southgate shuffled his pack, making changes, looking for a better balance. It said everything that he withdrew two of his stars from the Iran game – Bellingham and Saka. It was not their night. Jack Grealish showed a bit of personality on the ball but could England find some incision? Marcus Rashford, another substitute, curled straight at Turner and, at the very end, there was Kane. He was horribly off target.