On 27th June, 2016, England had 72 minutes to score a goal against Iceland, the smallest team to have ever qualified for the tournament. The following 72 minutes were a torturous, decaying mess and most would agree that having so much time merely prolonged the anguish. It was a severely disjointed and gutless performance with Wayne Rooney at the heart of it; the dying embers of his international career for all to see. Harry Kane taking England’s corners and Joe Hart, the ghost of David James and Rob Green incarnate, was at fault for the second Iceland goal and was rarely seen between the sticks for the national team again. Outraged and despairing fans disconnected by years of failure distanced themselves from the over-hyped, underperforming players of the national team. The ridicule and suffering heaped upon by an unrelenting media reverberated around the world.
Given the mess England made of the FIFA World Cup 2014 and UEFA Euro 2016, one can be forgiven for not being entirely convinced of their chances in Russia this summer. England had failed to qualify from the group stage in Brazil, gaining only one point and scoring just two goals. In fact, you had to go back to 2006 to find the last World Cup where England won a knockout game, and prior to that they had won just one since 1990. Couple this with the fact that Gareth Southgate, on the back of a largely unentertaining qualifying campaign, named England’s youngest and most inexperienced World Cup squad, the country could be forgiven for assuming England were playing for experience alone and building for the European Championships in 2020.
What transpired during the month-long heatwave which gripped Britain will long be remembered. Of course England didn’t win the World Cup, however, Southgate delivered the right balance of PR and performances on the pitch to give England fans plenty of reasons to be hopeful for the future. But questions arise on what the future holds in store for England.
Southgate was hardly an inspired choice by the Football Association (FA), with a three-year spell as Middlesbrough manager in which they were relegated from the Premier League and three years in charge of the England under-21s. It’s fair to say he didn’t fill the fans and media with a lot of confidence. Denounced as an FA ‘yes’ man with many misinterpreting his calm and quiet demeanour as boring or lacking passion. However, Southgate has proven this to be thoroughly untrue. In fact, he is quiet and measured. A waistcoat wearing, beard sporting, everyman, he doesn’t get his message across by fist pumping and chair throwing.
His knowledgeable, humble and self-deprecating interviews have given the impression of a thoughtful, well-mannered and a likeable England manager. Even though he has a little to learn tactically and needs a plan B when things don’t work out, he has shown a willingness to learn and adapt and this will help him greatly when he reviews the tournament with his coaching staff. His attention to detail and man-management have come to the fore over the last four weeks and England have a very bright future under him, so long as the results come too.
Anyone who saw the BBC documentary ‘The Impossible Job’ will have witnessed the scandalous ways in which the media have brought down successive England managers, from Sir Bobby Robson right through to Sam Allardyce, although many will agree that the Allardyce saga was a blessing in disguise for the future of English football. We have witnessed media campaigns bordering on hate. Those with memories as long as mine will remember Robson being branded a traitor when his move to PSV Eindhoven was announced in 1990, Graham Taylor’s head being turned into a root vegetable in a national newspaper and ‘fake Sheikhs’ entrapping Sven-Goran Eriksson in a London restaurant. Quite why the media has an agenda with the England manager is unclear, to sell newspapers or get clicks are probably the most obvious answers, but it is bizarre and counter-productive. Southgate must have been weary of the media’s powerful hold over the nation’s opinions.
Everyone knows the longevity of an England manager is connected to how things transpire on the pitch and so far the English team has been enjoying a lengthy honeymoon under Southgate. It remains to be seen how the media reacts if those results dip. To counter this, Southgate has brought the media on board, and apart from the leaked team sheet fiasco, everything has gone smoothly. We have seen the media playing darts with the team, being invited to team sessions and they were also invited to a Super Bowl style press conference, involving all 23 members of the World Cup squad.
While it’s a common perception that the players have no desire to mix with the media, it is one of the necessary duties for a national team player and they have all performed their obligations with humility and confidence. BBC presenter, Gabby Logan’s particularly fine interviews have been informal, knowing full well that a Frost/Nixon style interview will never get the players to open up. This again is down to Southgate and the domestic club-style atmosphere he has created within the team. There are no egos, club rivalries or WAGs and for the first time in years, England have a genuinely popular squad.
England fans, buoyed by their new found love of the team and of course by results, reacted in the way England fans do when they’re successful. Yes, they get a little carried away but the nation is desperate to see the team succeed and to actually win something again. The outpouring of joy was justified but the destruction of public property and emergency service vehicles was deplorable. The song, Three Lions, made a vociferous reappearance during the tournament.
Many outside observers confused the ‘it’s coming home’ message to be one of entitlement and arrogance, prompting some spiteful and borderline racist comments on social media when England lost to Croatia. Those who interpreted the message from the song to be one of victory and conceit missed the point as the song tells the story of near misses and failure but with an underlying message of hope for the future, and that’s what really came home this summer, hope.
The reaction to each win, each goal, saw thousands of beer soaked, sun baked fans share moments of unbridled jubilation. One can hope the players took some satisfaction from the fact that they helped create such a memorable, if sweltering and humid, time because for the first time since 1996 the country embraced a Summer of Love style euphoria with football at its heart. The nation’s sport has that unearthly knack of being able to bring a population together and anyone who has found themselves hugging strangers after an injury time winner will concur.
This England team has brought much joy to the people in such a short space of time, not only with their results but with their humble nature and strong team spirit. The fans are a crucial part of the perception of the England team and Southgate, pre-tournament, stated he wanted the team to build bridges with the fans after the horrors of 2014 and 2016. He has done that and more. Credit is due to him, his staff and the FA for completely re-branding the England team in the space of a few months.
This squad became the youngest England squad to have ever represented England at a tournament. The lack of experience contributed to low expectations but despite this the players have demonstrated a down to earth nature. Their youthful effervescence, untainted by national team politics and unaffected by previous failures, has been given the chance by their manager to express themselves on and off the pitch. The result has been an infectious enthusiasm. Compare the scenes after the defeat to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup to the scenes as the players, looking embarrassed and lost, applauded the fans after the final game in Brazil four years earlier. The players, from Harry Maguire’s ‘slab head’ to Dele Alli’s Fortnite exploits, have shown themselves to be humble and outgoing and have steadily grown into a team which the nation can relate to again. This is in stark contrast to Wayne Rooney spitting tantrums down the TV camera after the embarrassing goalless draw with Algeria at the 2010 World Cup.
The spine of the team, previously dismissed as too lightweight and uninspiring, is now rated as one which will only grow over the years. Jordan Pickford, Maguire, Kieran Trippier, John Stones, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane can all be considered to be the future of England’s fortunes. They are a credit to modern England, one based on hard work and spirit. They are products of the English lower leagues, often been told they weren’t good enough. They have embraced their manager’s tactics and ideas to become the genuinely liked team the 2000s golden generation could only have dreamed of being.
Pickford, Trippier, Stones and Maguire can especially be pleased with their performances at the World Cup. Henderson did so much of the unsung, thankless work for England and an effort that he can be satisfied with. Golden Boot winner Kane did little else after netting against Colombia. His scuffed shot midway through the first half against Belgium in the third place game, looked a desperate and tired effort which neatly summed up the latter half of his tournament. It would be churlish to solely blame him though as England desperately lacked ideas in attack at times.
On the Pitch & needing a Plan B
When the FA and Southgate sit down for a review, it will be noted that England won two group games and a knockout game for the first time since 2006. They won two consecutive World Cup knockout games for the first time in 28 years, won a penalty shootout at the World Cup for the first time ever, scored 12 goals which is their biggest tally ever and smashed the glass ceiling of the Quarter Final, something which Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and the underachieving, grandiose flops of 2002 and 2006 failed to do. All are praiseworthy statistics, considering the low expectations of the nation going into the tournament. The manager in particular will have felt much satisfaction and redemption from Eric Dier’s winning penalty, given his own penalty shootout heartache in 1996.
On the flipside, the FA will also note that England had a relatively easy path to the Semi Final and lost to the only team they played who were ranked above them. But as the old cliché goes ‘you can only play what is in front of you’ and England certainly did that. The ultimate question is: having got so far, whether by default or not, have England passed up an unbelievable opportunity to win the World Cup again? One can’t imagine an easier route to the Final, but instead of worrying about the opposition and plotting the easier rote to the Final, England have to simply be better and play better in order to crush the doubts before they manifest.
England’s attractive, possession based game has been a pleasant surprise for those fans used to the basic 4-4-2. There were passages of play against Tunisia, Panama, Colombia, Sweden and Croatia where England were supremely confident, playing on the front foot and passing the ball with urgency and decisiveness. It was a brief look into how England could play on a regular basis, with verve and drive to win. It was joyful and more than a little surreal, after so many years of frustrating tactics, playing players out of position and chasing the opposition midfield to win the ball back.
Southgate, however, does need an effective plan B to get the best out of the enigmatic Sterling and to counter the opposition changes when plan A doesn’t work. One doesn’t have to look too far to see a working example of this: the second half of the Semi Final is proof enough.
Some have suggested that England were overly reliant on set pieces with 75% of their goals coming this way. However, Southgate and assistant Steve Holland simply exploited a very effective way to win games. If a team has a skilful midfielder who produces most of their goals it is only logical that they use him. England use the same concept. The sheer panic and disorganisation caused in the Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden defences was testament to the perceived threat which the opposition faced. Southgate drew upon influences from other sports such as basketball, where players make space where there seemingly is none, to enhance England’s chances of success from set pieces.
When the set pieces don’t work or simply don’t materialise, England have to rely on their flair players. There was a very obvious reason for the depressingly inevitable way they let the Semi Final slip away: the conspicuous lack of a midfield playmaker. At various stages during each game, despite the passages of quick, decisive football, England were found lacking ideas and creativity up front. This caused a dreadful hesitancy which, more often than not, lead to possession being squandered. Jordan Henderson isn’t the type of player who can control a midfield and Southgate can only work with what he has at present. England were crying out for a midfielder who could not only partner Henderson but also link the midfield and attack and move the opposition’s defence around. For many, it was the missing piece of the jigsaw for England in 2018. If only Pogba or Modric were English!
England’s lack of experience which had been partly responsible for some youthful and carefree displays was their downfall in the Semi Final. The game slipped away and they lacked the necessary experience to prevent Croatia from taking the upper hand. The full backs were pressed back, the midfield overrun, they resorted to long balls to Kane and when tiredness set in, a win looked increasingly unlikely as the minutes ticked by. Experience is the key in big tournament games as it brings an element of control to proceedings and in turn relaxes the team. The stats show England managed six shots on target in their three knockout games and just three goals from open play in seven games (one of those was deflected off Kane’s heel).
In the more relaxed environment of the third place game against Belgium, they managed six shots on target in that single game. When England play with the handbrake off, they are a very attractive and exciting team to watch, but the higher the stakes, the more cautious the players are. Croatia showed some of the qualities England need to work on in the coming years, namely control and discipline. Despite being a goal down at half time against England they didn’t panic. They knew England would give them their chance and it was merely a matter of patience and timing for the eventual finalists. Southgate knows these mental qualities will develop over time, but the issues over creativity still needs to be addressed as soon as possible if England are to build on their successful World Cup campaign and progress in the future.
Looking back and the journey forward
The FA cannot rest and they have to take advantage of the team’s relatively unexpected success and the goodwill shown towards the manager. The introduction of the UEFA Nations League will revamp the tired, and frankly, boring friendly game set up and will see England back in action soon, as they square off against Croatia and Spain, both home and away. Even though the spine of the team is now set, the FA will look to boost the squad with the recent success of England’s youth team providing a host of options for Southgate. Phil Foden and Mason Mount are two of the brightest prospects of those victorious youth teams.
Their talents will be welcome with open arms, but they have to spend the time working their way into their club’s first team, spending time on loan or in the reserves. To force them into the senior team too early would create unnecessary pressure and would be counterproductive. They are just two players in a whole generation of future stars though, including Ryan Sessegnon and Jadon Sancho, and England can at least be confident that the newly revitalised senior team will be complimented with a fine crop of youth players in the near future.
The 2018 World Cup has been a blissful, bonkers feast of football, with plenty of drama and thrilling games. We saw the longest run of games without a goalless draw which stretched to the final round of group games, as the varying styles and quality of the participating nations gave the spectators a real treat. The knockout games, usually a time for conservative play, produced some of the tournament’s best games with Belgium’s victories over Japan and then Brazil, France’s defeat of Argentina, Russia’s shock win over Spain, Croatia’s endless reserves of energy and England vanquishing their penalty horror mixed with the almost pedestrian, but dominant, win over Sweden provided the highlights.
It has been nothing like the Hunger Games-esque, hooligan-fest the British media warned us about, with many fans returning home with glorious tales of their time in Russia. The World Cup isn’t for the purists, especially since FIFA diluted the quality of football by expanding the tournament. However, it has been an unhinged summer of flying beer, flying insects, VAR, unorthodox throw in techniques, the love train and Japanese players and fans with impeccable standards of ethics. No one who witnessed it would change it for anything.
It wouldn’t have been such a travesty if England had won the World Cup as history shows the best team doesn’t always win. Denmark in 1992, Greece in 2004 and Portugal in 2016 proved that you don’t have to have the most talented team to win the European Championships but something extra is needed to win the World Cup, something England lacked a little of: consistency and quality.
This World Cup has definitely signalled a wind of change for England, one which all involved must embrace. The players and fans are united, the team has a progressive identity and style of play and a young and down to earth manager is in-charge of a young and down to earth squad. The future is bright for England and the 2018 World Cup was a great learning curve. The Euro 2020 Final is at Wembley and the stage is set for Southgate’s England to be a part of it.