The dust has settled, the Premier League is back in full swing and Gareth Southgate is about to announce his next England squad. Three Lions has thankfully come off repeat – if I never hear it again it’ll be too soon – the summer heat has dissipated and the mania associated with England’s World Cup hopes is over.
It’s time now to look back upon those mad few weeks in Moscow – and how we got there – with a level head and see if we were right to get so over-excited.
On the face of it qualifying was straightforward but then again it nearly always is for England. A group containing Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta and Scotland should not prove problematic to any decent international side but there was the odd wobble.
The goodwill and love for Southgate that there is now didn’t exist back then and we had some bad performances on the way to Russia.
The home win against Slovakia in September essentially sealed the deal but early on we’d played out a 2-0 win over Malta followed by a 0-0 in Slovenia – not exactly inspiring stuff. We also should have lost to Scotland – horror of horrors – but scrambled a 2-2 thanks to Harry Kane.
The hope and expectation came more from the friendly matches with fixtures against Germany, Brazil, Holland, Italy, France and Spain. On the face of it much more useful than our normal friendly fixtures but overall, France aside of course who outclassed us, these sides weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Holland and Italy didn’t even make the World Cup for a start while Germany didn’t make it out of their group. Spain went out in the first knockout stage and Brazil in the second. All of these matches were drawn bar losing 3-2 to France, ultimately there’s no shame in that one given that they are the World Cup holders. Although we didn’t lose to the rest we didn’t beat them either, and given how they performed this summer the shine has come off those results a tad.
The World Cup – Tunisia
The lowering of expectations was of a big benefit to all involved, the squad and fans alike. Somehow you didn’t get the sense like there was in previous years that the press were ready with their knives and vegetable puns aside, from the odd gutter journo. Getting out of the group was a must, particularly that group but much more than that would just have been a bonus. As you’ll recall we faced Tunisia first, the below is from our review which you can read in full here:
After a bright start, again England failed to put away their chances and were nearly made to pay for them as Tunisia were awarded a penalty to equalize towards the end of the first half.
The introduction of Rashford and subsequently the lively Loftus-Cheek who I have great hopes for, really lifted the team for a final charge in the last 15 minutes. You cannot say an abundance of opportunities followed, but they got at the Tunisian defence, something that the starting eleven had struggled to do throughout the second half of the match.
The World Cup – Panama
The Panama game followed and yes we hammered them, but at the time they were rated 55th in the world according to FIFA and frankly were just delighted to have scored at the end of it. Then we move on to Belgium, a dead rubber to an extent as both teams had qualified although as we know 1st place in the group was crucial.
The World Cup – Belgium
Two reserve sides were put out and Belgium’s 1-0 win saw them through to the hard side of the draw. It was clear by that stage that permanent changes to the team were required. Dele Ali and Sterling had largely underwhelmed and most of were crying out for Loftus-Cheek and Rashford to replace them.
Danny Rose also showed enough in that final group game to suggest that he should start instead of Ashley Young too but these changes were not made. Nevertheless whether through luck or judgement we bypassed the route of Japan, who to be fair gave Belgium a hell of a scare, followed by Brazil and France in the semi-final.
You’ll forgive a Manchester United fan harking back to the old days after the 3-0 defeat to Tottenham but I can’t help but think back to the ’99 Champions League campaign. The group stage saw United face Bayern Munich and Barcelona which was tough enough. The knockout stages then went on to see them face Inter, Juventus and then Bayern again in the final as we all know.
The point I’m making is that this was the hardest possible route that could be faced but United rose to each occasion and lifted the trophy. Perhaps England would have been better off in the other half of the draw after all, inspired by taking on the best teams and maybe beating them or at worst suffering glorious defeat?
The World Cup – Colombia
Columbia were next up in a match that was often more like Game of Thrones than a football match. The irony of it was that when Columbia started to actually play they were all over us. To be fair to all involved on the England side it would have been easy to get swept up in the barbarism and get sent off but fortunately that did not happen.
Following Kane’s penalty around the hour mark we should really have been better at closing the game out and not for the first or last time Southgate was extremely slow to make any changes.
Ultimately we got through it though and actually winning a penalty shoot-out was an unexpected bonus and a hell of a morale booster.
The World Cup – Sweden
It was at this point that things started getting crazy and Baddiel and Skinner got turned up to eleven. A 2-0 scoreline indicates a fairly comfortable passage through to the semi-final. Let’s not forget though that Pickford was man of the match for a lot of people, making a couple of great saves that prevented the Swedes from getting a foothold in the match.
Again the starting line-up could have been different and, as we got the second on 58 minutes, earlier subs could have been made to rest players and help kill off the game. It was here too that Harry Kane for once failed to score, perhaps the signs were there then that he had a problem.
The World Cup – Croatia
Finally we get to Croatia and I won’t dwell on it because frankly it’s still painful to think about, not just the game itself but the monumental hangover the next day. Suffice to say that with the start we had we probably should have taken the opportunity to reach the final as that chance may not come up again.
Glen Hoddle’s love train became a rail replacement bus service and as before I had issues with the starting eleven and how long it took to change things. Croatia were a decent side don’t get me wrong but when we’re five minutes in and 1-0 up it was there for the taking.
This isn’t intended as a hatchet job on Southgate as overall we’re still the 4th best team in the world off the back of Russia 2018. We did play some good stuff at times but maybe the best thing we can take from it is the PR and the mood change with regard to our national team. For a time I believed, for the first time in a long time I had butterflies, I cared again. I think we all did.
Mistakes were made but we didn’t go the way of Germany or Spain and at least we got there unlike Holland and Italy. I just hope that with the World Cup under his belt and the whole English player base to call on now Southgate becomes more flexible with regard to personnel and more decisive during matches.
He has great potential and with the successes of the youth teams recently the team has too. Now is when Gareth’s work really begins.