What a ride they gave us. Gareth Southgate and England took only twenty-six days to fully restore the dormant pride in the national team. The Three Lions had been on a positively downward trajectory since Euro ’96. Promising moments became predictability, and predictability became embarrassment in 2007, on that miserable mucky night at Wembley, against Croatia.
In the last decade the national team barely recovered from that. The most inconceivable and exasperating moment of the England team’s then-144-year history followed. That unforgettable nightmare in Nice where time stood still, the players looked beaten after twenty-minutes, and where Iceland saw off Roy Hodgson once and for all.
Well, England’s fairy-tale World Cup journey of this year came to a respectable end in Moscow last week, and we can ‘thank’ familiar foes for that. Croatia’s organised, skilful and experienced side proved too much for Southgate’s youngsters, sending The Three Lions home as gutted, but inspiring, semi-finalists. The country shed a tear in the realisation that ‘Football’s [not] coming home’. Maybe it took a detour.
If you can’t win a World Cup as a player, you at least want two things – positive memories of your team’s progress, and to know you personally played well. Besides the real fringe players like Gary Cahill and Danny Welbeck, or the unused goalkeepers, England’s players will have both.
England’s best period of football in the whole tournament was its first period. The opening exchanges in their curtain-raiser against Tunisia were a joy to watch. Harry Kane tucked England into the lead, setting his side on the way to the nation’s joint-best foreign World Cup adventure ever. The captain petered out as the tournament went on, but he won his Golden Boot and skippered his side to a semi-final spot. There has been the inevitable cynicism from avid Wales and Scotland fans about how The Three Lions never beat a serious outfit, but it’s a potentially unlikely prospect that Scotland would have knocked Colombia out of the World Cup. England did.
There were more goals scored by England in this World Cup than they had managed in any previous tournament, including 1966. Of course, a Sunday[-league] battering of Panama helped, but was it even set in stone that the Central Americans would get beaten, never mind thrashed? Cast your minds back to Algeria in 2010 or to Slovakia in 2016. Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland masterminded a summer display to encourage every club fan under the sun to take a little more interest in their national team in years to come. The Three Lions went to Russia with only one publicly announced objective – to begin a honing process that would hopefully end in triumph, a few tournaments down the line. Well, England did that – and became World Cup semi-finalists along the way. Raheem Sterling’s elusive international goal and a better result against Croatia are the only things we were left wanting in vain. That sweltering night in Moscow, and in England, at the Round of 16 stage will remain in the legacy of English football for decades to come. The 3nd of July 2018: the date England’s penalties woes were put to bed with a sleeping pill. Let’s hope it turns out to be terminal.
It was on a chilly evening in Lithuania, last November, that Gareth Southgate first trialled his three-at-the-back system. Only a Harry Kane penalty that night saved England from an embarrassing stalemate with the minnows. But in the following pre-tournament friendlies, the system achieved draws with Germany, Brazil and Italy; victories over Nigeria, Costa Rica and the Netherlands; and conceded only two goals from those six matches along the way [one was a penalty]. The Three Lions’ belief in Southgate’s system proved decisive as they put together some impressive performances at the tournament itself. England actually only kept one clean-sheet at the World Cup, but they were still getting to grips with a new system, with a new goalkeeper and with a right-back playing as a centre-half. All things considered, England did better this summer than we were maybe expecting they would. It’s so telling of the Premier League’s lack of regard to the England team that Fabian Delph and John Stones, such fringe players at Manchester City, played starring roles at Russia 2018. The former was an energetic and enthusiastic deputy, and latter was a two-goal nuisance, capable of keeping the best strikers at bay, whilst also posing a useful attacking threat himself.
The future is bright for England; Gareth Southgate has said so on numerous occasions. There are three or four generations of players waiting to break through to the senior squad in the next half-decade. The youngest is Phil Foden’s U-17 World Cup winners. The oldest is Dominic Solanke’s eager U-21s. A strengthening of the midfield is what England need more than anything else. Their undeniable threat from set-pieces was never going to take them all the way to the trophy without at least a little help from open play. Jordan Henderson, the ‘self-employed captain’, was statistically England’s best player in Russia. Better than Harry Maguire [whose 11 shots at the tournament outdid Robert Lewandowski and Gabriel Jesus]. Better than Kieran Trippier [who created more chances at this World Cup than any of the other 735 players]. Better, too, than Harry Kane [whose six goals from his first six shots helped him to the coveted World Cup Golden Boot]. Henderson is an unsung hero perhaps, but he needed help at times as the side’s only holding-midfielder. Croatia’s ran him ragged and Colombia’s simply played one-twos with their wingers before picking up where they left off. Maybe a Lewis Cook or a Tom Davies will have made the position his own when Euro 2020 comes knocking. England have to get there first.
Wembley Stadium will host seven matches at the next European Championships – more than any other stadium in Europe. This includes the two semi-finals and the final itself. What a huge incentive for England to make sure they’re alive and kicking in the competition at that point. The Three Lions will have less forced changes to their team than any other side competing at Russia this summer. A likely retirement for Ashley Young, and a potential one for Jamie Vardy, are all fans should be worrying about. Even then, there are outstanding young talents waiting to come in and establish themselves as England starters. Times are more than bright for England. Let’s hope the players, managers, coaches, staff, clubs, club managers, and Premier League all work to this common objective. They can all do it, they just need to want to.
Let’s make England great again.