After England made the semi-finals of Italia ’90 against the odds, they qualified for Euro ’92 and turned up in high spirits. But at the tournament itself, they scored one goal in three games and went home bottom of their group. It seems highly unlikely that history will repeat itself at Euro 2020.
England are flourishing under Gareth Southgate, and if one thing has changed since he led the team all the way to Moscow in the summer it’s that competition for places is now as high as it has been for years. Players like Fabian Delph, Jesse Lingard and Kieran Trippier are likely to really struggle for England game time now – players that were so pivotal to the success last summer and to all that beer garden mayhem back home.
The World Cup, the win in Spain, revenge over Croatia and then ten goals in two matches in March have got England fans everywhere pondering and wondering and questioning the same thing. Exactly how good are we?
It doesn’t always go like this, and it’s much harder when you made the semis and played so well, but England have improved since the World Cup. In Russia we saw a Deutsch-style never-say-die attitude from England – right when we also didn’t see it from the Deutsch themselves. There was also an outstanding efficiency of shooting. For example, it was only in the final week of the tournament that England overtook the Saudis for shots on target – they were long gone even halfway through the group stages. Southgate’s troopers were shooting only when it seemed appropriate – and the goalkeepers facing them weren’t having much luck against Harry Kane and his well-drilled brothers (see: England 6-1 Panama). They were so efficient of course that they even won a penalty shoot-out.
And finally this England learned how to win a quarter-final as comfortably as any World Cup quarter-final has been won in the history of World Cup quarter-finals. Then again, with all due respect, most Englands would have had a field day facing Albin Ekdal and a 33-year-old Sebastian Larsson in the centre of the park. And Gareth’s England certainly did. The semis was just about right. We deserved to get there, but didn’t deserve to get any further.
Since the glorious summer of Kane but no rain, England have learned further lessons of how to succeed in international football and ultimately challenge for major trophies. At Wembley against Spain, they (and Danny Welbeck) learned that some referees will get it wrong, and that sometimes it isn’t entirely your fault when you come off the pitch the losing team.
Then in the Leicester friendly with Switzerland it became clear that playing your way out from the back only works if you do it with conviction. Xherdan Shaqiri won the ball where he shouldn’t have done – slamming the post inside the opening five minutes. In silent Rijeka, England learned how important a crowd is to how the team fares. Marcus Rashford, Kane and Eric Dier could have had England up 4-0 if they’d had their shooting boots. It ended 0-0.
In Spain, the lesson was in how to close a game out and hold on to a victory. Raheem Sterling had woken up from his three-year hibernation and had scored either side of a Rashford goal as England went 3-0 up against Luis Enrique and Spain. England had learned how to score from open play. Jordan Pickford’s distribution made two of the goals possible and left most of us in awe. But in the second half, Southgate felt he’d seen enough goals, and so England banked in for what ended up being over fifty minutes of backs-to-the-wall defending.
Yes, England did concede twice to Spain the second half, but the first came from a corner and was just a superb header. The second, many forget, was Sergio Ramos’ diving header. He had barged Kyle Walker out the way illegally to get to the ball and anywhere else on the pitch at any other time of the match it would have been a foul. Instead, the referee let it stand – 3-2 in the 98th minute with the very last kick of the game. England were seconds away from a 3-1 win. In the end they had to settle for 3-2. It’ll have to do, lads.
Against the United States in November England learned absolutely nothing because the US were awful and went down 3-0. But three days later, England learned three lessons in that crucial Nations League Wembley win over Croatia. The first was how to come back from a knock. The second was how suitably sweet revenge is. The third was that they’re still a great threat from set-pieces. The two goals came from a wide free-kick and a long-throw. England under Gareth Southgate are a weird but wonderful mix of Bayern Munich 2014 and Stoke City 2009.
And in March against the Czech Republic and Montenegro, the Three Lions learned that Declan Rice and Callum Hudson-Odoi are capable at this level, learned that they can be a constant goal-threat at all moments of any match and learned just how good Sterling is. He has four goals and three assists in his two matches for England this year. That’s outstanding.
So, which teams are better than England?
France are better than England. Didier Deschamps’ side went all the way in Russia and have been decent since. They were pipped to the post in their UEFA Nations League group by a resurgent Netherlands side, but have still picked up some impressive results since the World Cup, beating Germany, the Netherlands, Uruguay and thrashing Iceland 4-0. It is certainly true that given the players at their disposal France should be way better than they are, but they’re still the best team in the world and better than England.
So are Belgium – twice winners over Southgate’s team in Russia. Their years of under-achievement looked to be over after the World Cup. Argentina and Wales sent them out of consecutive major tournaments at the quarter-finals in 2014 and 2016, but their showing in Russia was World Cup final-worthy. They scored an incredible 16 times last summer – more than any other nation at the finals. However, they somehow failed to top a Nations League group comprising Switzerland and Iceland. They needed to avoid defeat to Switzerland by more than two goals in their final game to guarantee their place at June’s finals. They somehow lost 5-2, but are still better than the Swiss, the Icelanders and crucially England. Belgium might have the odd off day but so do does France and every other team – it’s just that England haven’t had one in quite a long time now.
The Netherlands are enjoying a very exciting and promising period at the moment, but they are still possibly a way off the standard of Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions. We shall find out definitively in June. Germany look to be enduring a sticky spell at the moment and would probably leave the field the loser if England played them tomorrow. The same goes for Portugal, who have struggled since the World Cup without Ronaldo, and then struggled even more with him in the team last month.
Switzerland are tricky opponents, but England are better than them too, and better than Argentina with or without Messi as well. Uruguay have been shocking since the finals – losing four consecutive games in the tail end of last year to Korea, Japan and Brazil and France. England would feel they could see them off.
Croatia since the finals have shown just what an inspiring story their route to the final was. They may have beaten Spain in November (helping England on their way to the Nations League Finals) but they’ve also conceded goals to Jordan and Azerbaijan and somehow managed to lose their second Euro 2020 qualifier in Hungary. Croatia knocked England out of the World Cup at a time when they were a superior side to England – more experienced and more organised. Now though, England are more dangerous. They should fare much better at the European Championships next summer. Whoops. Hold your breath, we’ve said that before…
And so we come to the two sides probably closest matched to England – Brazil and Spain. Both sides have better players than England does, but both tend to pick up some really poor results and had pretty forgettable World Cup campaigns. The former are unbeaten since the World Cup, but have been disappointing in many of these matches and last month drew with lowly Panama. Spain, by contrast, have beaten England at Wembley and thrashed Wales and World Cup finalists Croatia 4-1 and 6-0 respectively. Still, age-old problems remain for them – they pass too much, and it’s rarely forwards. They really struggled in the March international break, making a meal of their trip to Malta and needing a Sergio Ramos penalty to see off Norway.
England, Brazil and Spain are three very well-matched sides and all of them could claim to have a good shout at being the world’s third best side. April’s FIFA Rankings have Brazil at 3rd, England 4th and Spain way down in 9th. But these are the same FIFA Rankings that rank Sweden above the Netherlands, Scotland better than Russia and Switzerland five places above Germany.
The take-home message here is that England are now one of the world’s best sides. St George’s Park is creating, nurturing and improving a lot of very exciting talent, while hard working managers in the Championship alongside galactico technicians like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola benefit the national team in similar ways. With a competitive, ballsy, switched-on figure like Gareth Southgate overseeing this lengthy but exciting process, things can only be moving in one direction. There’s an old saying that players don’t want to play for their countries anymore. Here in England at least, that simply isn’t the case.