With the dust having settled on a momentous night in Seville, it seems an appropriate time to consider where England stand in world football. Naturally, any system for ranking football teams will become outdated on a match-by-match basis, as we’ve seen with some hopeless FIFA World Rankings over the years. But it seems to be a truth that under their ambitious, studious manager, England are making serious strides in international football.
A representative of The Three Lions 57 times himself, Gareth Southgate is as avid an England fan as you will find. England and Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton recently detailed [on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily] how Southgate’s England camps are varied and inspiring, fun and progressive. The 48-year-old manager patiently tells his players that they can win a tournament with England. That they can represent the best country in the world at football. Wind back four months, and England are in the thick of an unpredictable World Cup in Russia. He tells his players to be in control of their own destiny; that they don’t have to follow the paths of previous England sides. And they don’t – they rip tradition apart. A realist, Southgate knows progress is necessary, and that his side are still a long way off, yet.
In Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper’s rather depressingly-named book ‘Why England Lose’ , the two sports economists explain how, despite stark differences between some historic England sides’ tournament pedigree, all have been roughly as good as one another. What makes one side stand out is that they form a whole stronger than the sum of its parts. That’s a manager’s doing – and Southgate is doing that. England are man-for-man thoroughly inferior to Spain. England, as a side though, thoroughly deserved to beat them.
Of course, the only thing Southgate can do to try and make his side the best in the world is to make them as good as they can be. However, the quality of England’s opposition along the way doesn’t half matter just as much. A rather cynical view of Sven Goran-Eriksson’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’ may be that they were deemed such under-achievers not because they were an exceptional England team, but simply that international football was lacking in exceptional teams at the time. It wouldn’t be truthful to say that Germany, Argentina and Brazil were enduring golden generations at this point. England weren’t better, they were just playing in wide-open tournaments, where anyone could win. Greece did.
The same could really be said now. The 2018 FIFA World Cup had no outright favourite. Germany, Spain, Brazil were all banded around as outstanding sides. But they didn’t stand out for the right reasons. They died in the first, second and third rounds, respectively. Germany, since the World Cup and their keeping-faith with Joachim Löw, have lost key Nations League fixtures to France and the hardly-resurgent Dutch. Lowly Gibraltar won more competitive matches in the October international break than Germany have in 2018.
Considering only Europe [because the rest of the world becomes frankly irrelevant as we move towards the European Championships], where do England really lie in the standings of international football? Recently moving up into fifth in the FIFA World Rankings promptly asks the question: Are we really that good? The Netherlands and Italy seem miles off a World Cup, never mind a semi-final, so England are certainly at a better place than these two former greats. The B-list of Denmark, Russia, Sweden, etc. would be underdogs when facing Gareth Southgate’s men, so by that logic England are better than these too.
Switzerland and Iceland are Nations League A’s weakest two and have contrasting recent memories against England. The former has played England three times since World Cup 2014, losing all three games without scoring a single goal. The latter made its first ever European Championships a memorable occasion by making the quarter-finals at the expense of England. That was the darkest night in English football history. But Roy Hodgson [whose reputation is now permanently tarnished by that defeat] and Joe Hart are firmly out of the picture now; Gareth Southgate’s England are better than Switzerland and Iceland. They’d see off Poland, too.
It comes down to the final seven. England take their place amongst Europe’s seven best sides. Belgium, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain. Of these, Germany are in the worst form by far. Beaten at the World Cup by Mexico and South Korea, their young stars of 2010 that blew Fabio Capello and England away are slowly but surely aging and leaving. Mesut Özil called time on Germany after Russia, whilst Thomas Müller, Jerome Boateng and Sami Khedira don’t have a great deal more to offer. Julians Brandt and Draxler belong to a limited club of well-established German youngsters ready to pick up where Özil and Khedira’s generation left off.
It was after their masterful World Cup qualifying campaign ended that cracks began to show, and things have turned so sour in recent months that German journalists have begun to question how long Löw can last. The four-time world champions have a multitude more experience and pedigree than England, but considering wholes not parts, England lead the Germans for the first time in a long while.
Croatia are a very interesting case. The draw in Russia seemed to open up like an unlocked treasure chest for England, but it was the Croats that took full advantage. Led by wily old foxes like Dejan Lovren and Luka Modrić, the red-and-white chessboards came from nowhere to almost prove the often loosely coined claim that their midfield is the best in world football. That night in Moscow, it was their midfield that picked apart England – who needed to take their catalogue of early chances. 1-0, woodwork, save, miss, 1-2, ouch.
Since then though, Zlatko Dalić’s side have lost Mario Mandžukić and Danijel Subašić. They haven’t won a serious match without them – draws with Portugal and England sandwiching that 0-6 thrashing from a rampant Spain. England, by contrast, haven’t been beaten by more than a couple of goals since that aforementioned collapse to Germany in Bloemfontein, over eight years ago. It’s hard to judge where Croatia are, but they did embarrass Argentina in the World Cup group-stages. England and Croatia are almost certainly on a par, making Croatia a better outfit than Germany. World Cup finalists being better than group-stage drop-outs, ought we even to question it?
Portugal, with or without Ronaldo, would now probably fare equally well. They seem to be on a roll in the Nations League, although facing limited competition against out-of-form Poland and a damaged animal in Italy. Portugal, too, are about as good as England; no better, no worse.
With Belgium and Spain, we see sides with better players than England’s, playing better football than England. Belgium beat them twice at the World Cup and, whilst Steve Holland and Southgate masterminded their way to victory in Seville, Spain still lead England. France are intriguing because in their last match they came from behind to sink Germany, went unbeaten throughout the World Cup, and won the tournament with their star-studded squad. However, there is still a feeling that we could, and should, see a whole lot more from them. They found themselves two-down to Iceland in a recent friendly and bore their way out of an easy group in June. In a way, that doesn’t matter though. They’re still some way better than England.
There is no doubt about it, England’s masterclass in Spain provided the exact performance and result that pundits, fans, players and Gareth Southgate had all been crying out for. It was a competitive victory over world-class opposition – these are rare for plucky Albion. Southgate is the man to take this young group of players forward. He’s competent, sensible and has a vested interest in everything he’s trying to implement; he’s a lifelong England fan. England aren’t the best team in the world, but they belong well and truly in the mix of football’s elite. They were given an invitation [by the short-term departures of Italy, Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands], took it, and look here to stay. Can England hand Croatia revenge, win the Nations League and lift the Henri Delaunay trophy at Wembley in July 2020? Yes they can.