Gareth Southgate’s misfiring England lose control in haunting defeat | Barney Ronay

So much for the sunlit uplands. Friday night in Prague: this was supposed to be a romp past the post for Gareth Southgate’s England 2.0, a breasting of the tape en route to the clear blue skies of next summer’s European championship. In the build-up the key questions had been about how exactly England would go about brushing past the Czech Republic; how they might finesse the moment.

Instead England were terrible – and terrible in a gruellingly old school kind of way. This was not just a 2-1 defeat. Tactically undercooked, limp and muddled at the back, at times it felt like a visitation from the ghost behind the door. There they were stalking the pitch: the horrors of Nice, São Paulo and Kyiv, white shapes flickering at the edge of things, eyes hollow, teeth chattering.

No doubt this had been coming. There had been tremors. But then all international teams operate in a vacuum, borne aloft on warm winds of hope and hype. To his credit Gareth Southgate has never really talked his own team up. “We know there is a lot of work still to be done,” England’s manager said in defeat, as he has also in victory. This will be the challenge now: to find and act on the lessons from a muddled Group A defeat to a Czech team that thoroughly deserved its 2-1 victory.

Did England take the Czech Republic lightly? It will be tempting to conclude that this was the case given the shift not just in personnel, but in shape and outlook, the feeling of a team that began this game as though it was already 4-0 up and cruising to the finish.

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There was even something agreeably corrective and astringent about the identity of the player who scored the winning goal against England’s team of Premier League princes. With six minutes to go and the score 1-1 Zdenek Ondrasek, on as a sub, found himself alone in front of goal.

Ondrasek is 30 years old. He plays for FC Dallas. This was his first call-up, but he is clearly a popular figure in the Czech team. At the pre-match training session his teammates had cheered as he mis-controlled a high ball, then lined to slap him on his bald head, the claps echoing round the empty stands.

Czech Republic’s Patrik Schick congratulates Zdenek Ondrasek after the final whistle.

Czech Republic’s Patrik Schick congratulates Zdenek Ondrasek after the final whistle. Photograph: David W Černý/Reuters

But Ondrasek did for England here. The finish was neat. The celebration was brilliantly bellicose. More to the point, it was always coming. England will still make it to next summer’s Euros. But on a chilly October night they showed how they might fall short when they get there.

It came down to control. England teams do not have control. This has been their history. The most encouraging note in this Southgate team has been to buck the trend. But not so here. Pockets of space had been opening up throughout the game. There were warnings. Five minutes before the break something horrible had happened to England’s midfield and defence. Patrik Schick took the ball in his own half, veered right and simply ran away from the white shirts, hoovering up the vast, slightly shocking green spaces down an unguarded right flank as Jordan Henderson and Kieran Trippier puffed and paddled in his wake.

There was an air of raggedness to the white shirts in those moments, the sense of a malfunctioning machine, circuit boards flickering, parts starting to jangle. It came from England’s selection here; but more from the way that selection played out.

Mason Mount came into England’s midfield to offer a hint of craft. In the event he played so high up the pitch, creating an overloaded four-man front line, that Henderson and Declan Rice were left undermanned against a trio of neat, skilful opponents.

This was more than just a change of texture. It was a full-on, unrehearsed change of shape in a live qualifying game, a relax of tension in the centre that left England scrabbling for a hold. Henderson moved constantly to cover spaces, but somehow always opening another behind him. It was not really his fault. Henderson thrives in a coherent system. This was not that.

Mount looked lost at times. He touched the ball eight times in the opening half hour. Time and again Alex Kral popped up in space behind him, a galloping shaggy-haired figure who ran the game for periods in the first half.

And all this after England had started well at the Sinobo Stadium, a low-rise oval with a wood-panelled flying roof above its grey concrete tiers. The opening goal came from the first real flex of England’s forward muscles. Harry Kane dropped deep and eased a lovely pass in to Raheem Sterling’s path. He ran straight for goal, checked inside and allowed Lukas Masopust to take his standing leg. Kane buried the penalty kick.

At which point, England just deflated. The equaliser saw the defence opened up twice in quick succession, as brittle as it had been in the second half against Kosovo. Here Jakub Brabec poked the ball in after a scramble that saw England’s defence respond with all the well-drilled resilience of a platoon of drunken sailors.

The challenge will be to learn from this performance. Southgate did the right thing here, looking for something more from his midfield, risking defeat in search of a more convincing kind of victory. The lesson, which is never a bad one, is that England are not yet what they want to be. Suddenly Bulgaria in Sofia on Monday looks like a test where once it had seemed likely to be a lap of honour.