Following England’s final fixture of the 2018 World Cup against Belgium in the game for third-place, Gareth Southgate said that his side were tired and had been outplayed by a hungrier and more alert team. That meant the English players who gave so much in the tournament had to travel home with no medals to show for all their efforts and for the progress that had been made on and off the pitch.
England’s World Cup can be looked back on as a successful campaign in which they over-achieved. Despite plenty of hype and hysteria back home, we shouldn’t get over-excited about the future…well not just yet.
Of course, Gareth Southgate should be proud of what he and his team have achieved so far. What was achieved over the summer was no fluke. A popular, united and effective England squad was brought together, and they did try to play the right way. That might seem like something obvious to try to achieve, but more experienced managers like Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello and Steve McClaren could never do it.
A fresh start
Southgate provided England with something that has been needed for years, but nobody was ever quite brave enough to deliver it before him – a new start. Leaving more established players out of his squad to focus on the younger player’s coming through was a gamble and might have harmed England’s chances this time, but in a few tournaments time it could well pay off. We will see at Euro 2020 and Qatar 2022, assuming we qualify.
Southgate introduced a team psychologist to help focus the player’s on continuing to play their best even when situations go against them. Look at Kane’s late winner against Tunisia; England looked to have run out of ideas but were rewarded for sticking to their plan and not rushing to simply throw balls into the box. It was perhaps England’s most important goal of the tournament – imagine what would have happened had they only drawn 1-1 in their first game.
The efficient intelligence of set-pieces
It also highlighted how important set-pieces would be for England’s World Cup. They managed 12 goals all tournament, with four coming from corners, three from penalties and two from free-kicks. People might be critical for the lack of goals from open play, but it was a moment of intelligence from England, who realised how important set pieces are in tournaments.
You can’t read too much into results in tournament football, as fine margins and random events can often be the deciding factor over 90 minutes. Over a 38 or 42-game season the variance will usually be evened out. So, measuring England’s progress on results alone should be avoided.
Yet contingency and chance are what can make or break an international tournament – look at the Spanish, Germans and Argentinians. England had a plan and took their chance until running out of steam in the semi-final. Being able to win in knock-out games, even in the ‘easier’ side of the draw, is an achievement in itself. Finally winning a penalty shootout in a World Cup and the first in any tournament for 28-years is an achievement in itself.
The way forward
The way in which England beat Sweden in the quarter-finals without any of the usual stress that comes with their tournament endeavours, and the two group stage wins, indicates that this is a team freed up from some of the fear of failure that has dogged England teams in the past.
They now get the chance to test themselves against Spain and Croatia in the UEFA Nations League. If they can continue the good things seen in the World Cup against very good opposition – then perhaps we can start believing that England are starting something special.