A Bigger Missed Opportunity Than the Euros but Who Is Really to Blame?

by Dom Smith

In some ways they live a privileged life of which the rest of the population can only dream. Yet in others it is a cruel life in which so much is expected so soon after so much has gone south. Harry Maguire barely had the time to wipe from his brow the beads of sweat that had collected during 105 minutes of hardcore World Cup football. Now he was expected to speak about it all, in a contemplative state and flowing sentences.

Maguire looked glum and why wouldn’t he? England had just departed from a World Cup in which they are still the top scorers and were one of the best performing teams. “The performance was there,” he said. “You can only look after the performance.”

The 29-year-old was right. You can never be sure of outscoring the opposition, but you can always make sure the performance is right. England did that against France. It was the sternest test of Gareth Southgate’s six-year tenure — a meeting with the defending champions for a place in the World Cup semi-finals.

At Russia 2018 four years ago, the team’s aim was to simply win one knockout match. They did that — doing so on penalties proving a psychological bonus — before winning another and reaching the semis. Against Croatia they let themselves be overrun by a superior midfield and a cannier side. The same was true three years on when they met Italy at the final of the Euros last summer.

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This was different. The result was the same: dejection for England and an exit from the tournament. But the storyline was different. Against France, better than that Croatia team and the Italians too, England were brave. They did not bed in and hope to nick the game through a set-piece. That would have been risky and negative and defeatist and frustrating. Instead, England were positive. They courageously ran at France, rightly trusting their own attacking flair and midfield industry.

While Southgate deserved criticism for not turning the tide when Croatia hauled themselves into the ascendency and when his side sat back on a first-minute lead in the final against Italy, the same could not be said as his side bowed out at the Al Bayt Stadium. England’s game-plan was spot on. Their execution was too, apart from at that crucial final-trigger moment. After dispatching perfectly once, Kane had his angles out and the next thing he knew, he was out. But no extra tactical analysis prevents a player from skying a penalty. “That’s football,” as Kyle Walker put it.

Southgate’s only failing all night was replacing Bukayo Saka when he had Theo Hernández roped firmly to a chair with his hands tied behind his back. Saka turned 21 in the autumn and signifies England’s rousing future as well as anyone.

Someone or other went viral on Twitter in the aftermath of England’s defeat by mentioning that Marcus Rashford had scored three goals in the tournament already yet only got four minutes against France. “Someone explain it for me”, they fumed. Will we ever learn? Will we ever learn in this country that searching for the blameworthy and the culpable with the benefit of hindsight is not illuminating nor helpful? It is easy, lazy and nasty. There was no scandal about England’s departure from Qatar 2022, despite countless attempts to suggest that there was.

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“And that’s not arrogant,” Maguire insisted when he mentioned that England had genuinely felt they would win the tournament. They would not have had such belief before Southgate, nor during their first two tournaments under his stewardship. If they’d previously said they believed they could challenge for a trophy, they were feigning it. But on this winter excursion to the middle of the desert, you could see their mentality had turned a corner. As a group they have come of age.

Imagine if England had somehow come through against France, imagine if their courageous attacking football had successfully knocked out the defending champions, creating for themselves in the jubilant scenes afterwards a night that they never wanted to end. Just imagine the emotional high those players would have been on. The way that tournaments work, the way that knockout football works, you send a world-class team packing in one round and then subconsciously fail to reset your mindset and before you know it you’re heading home and Morocco are World Cup finalists.

But of the very best teams in the world, the team most professional and most likely to have switched their attentions appropriately to the next job in hand most speedily and dutifully is England. The sheer levels it takes to win these sorts of competitions simply do not allow for extravagant celebrations until you’ve actually won the damn thing. England would have reset, and against Morocco and then either Croatia or even Lionel Messi’s Argentina, they would have been favourites and would likely have got the job done.

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That is what will be most painful for England and for their fans about this. Statistically it is Southgate’s worst tournament showing. Only a quarter-final. Yet to ask what they could or should have done differently either against France or in the whole tournament is to be left scratching your head and concocting some meaningless vaguity. England may very well have won the World Cup if only the best penalty taker in the world were a little bit better at taking penalties

The temptation now is for a root and branch review of their failure. An inquest. A formal investigation into the outrageousness of England not being one of the four teams yet to check out of their Doha hotel. Some will feel we simply must get to bottom of quite where England went so heinously wrong.

Sometimes in sport, though, a team can get it right and still lose. They were better here than in Russia and better too than in the Euros. They were better even than world champions France. The reality of England’s World Cup exit was best summed up by a Scot. In the words of ex-Scotland U21s player and Times sportswriter Gregor Robertson, “There should be no autopsy here.”

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