The World Cup third-place play-off is the game nobody wants to play but it at least sums up England’s past month and their current position in world football as they look ahead to what comes next.
It is the game for the good but not good enough, and that is probably about right. It sounds a harsh assessment of a team that had made a country dream but it should not be. Those dreams should be regarded as success.
England ultimately fell short of the final but they achieved far more than most had ever imagined and along the way they re-engaged thousands, if not millions, of fans who had fallen out of love with their national team.
Long before the painful elimination to Croatia, much had been written about England merely taking advantage of a weak side of the draw, but that misses the point; England are regularly presented with supposedly ‘winnable’ games, only to lose anyway. Before this summer they had won just six – six! – tournament knock-out games since 1966, but they won two in Russia alone.
Nobody was calling the last-16 clash with Colombia ‘easy’ in the build-up to it; in fact you were far more likely to find detractors claiming Gareth Southgate’s supposed plan to finish second in the group had backfired, given it was the South Americans who provided the opposition rather than Japan or Senegal.
Sweden are not a fun side to watch but they know what they are doing, and if you are not on top of your game then there is a good chance they’ll make you pay. They are not Spain, Germany or Argentina, but then again Spain, Germany and Argentina were already at home.
In those two games, and in the two group victories, England attempted to play attractive football. That should not be taken for granted, either. Not all of the football was good but the intention was there, and you cannot really say fairer than that, especially set against the backdrop of previous England summers.
And it was often fun! How many of the teams that got to the last eight can say they thrilled their supporters so often? No team at this World Cup is perfect so why not relish a last-minute winner, a genuine thrashing and a penalty shoot-out victory, even if the football was not always vintage?
In the end it was not enough, and it was the holes in the gameplan that did it for them. When Spanish journalist Guillem Balague tweeted during the walkover against Panama that England struggled “in the inside channels, between the lines” he was hammered, but he was right.
He said England wanted to play that way but could not actually do it, and again that was accurate, and proven correct. It should be pointed out, again, that the intention to play this kind of attractive football was rightly welcomed by the English football public, who have for too long put up with dour plans and worse performances.
Not enough play/quality in the inside channels, between the lines, for the style #eng want to play. Lingard and Loftus-Cheek no comfortable there. Very dangerous on set pieces and when they play in behind but possession football they want to play is wasteful. Other players needed
— Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague) June 24, 2018
The Colombia game was no classic – owed mostly to all the fouls – but it was refreshing to see England in possession, looking comfortable with the ball in defence and carefully probing for openings, with Colombia the ones merely keeping things tight and hoping for a chance later on. For so long those roles have been reversed.
Of course, England only got their goal from the penalty spot, and they did struggle from open play generally – for many of the reasons Balague pointed out. Harry Kane was too often starved of any service whatsoever, the attack-minded trio behind him – Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard – too often struggling to combine on the edge of the opponents’ penalty area.
This was most evident against Croatia – yet only after England missed chances to go 2-0 up. From that point on they simply wasted possession, with Jordan Henderson particularly culpable for spamming balls over the top for Sterling to chase. The vast majority of those long balls forward only served to gift Croatia possession, and with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic in midfield it was always likely to end badly for Southgate’s side.
And it’s also true that Southgate did not help himself in that regard. His substitutions did little to tip the game back in England’s favour, and indeed the decision to take off Sterling deprived the team of one of the few options they did have.
The defeat was not unwarranted, but it was certainly painful. Not the least because there is a common belief that this was England’s best chance to win a World Cup for years to come, if not ever again.
There is an element of truth to that, given most of world football’s giants had already crashed and burned, although there are no guarantees they will be back stronger next time, either. Argentina’s deep-rooted problems are likely to hold them back for years to come and Spain, for all their brilliant players and youth development, have had two terrible World Cups since they won it eight years ago. Italy and the Netherlands are in a worse state than England are, too.
It will not be this easy for England next time but it need not be impossible. And those writing off their future chances ignore their own capacity to improve upon the strides they have already taken forward.
England, after all, are the youngest team at the World Cup, and are world champions at Under-20 and U-17 level. In Southgate, a former U-21 boss, they have somebody willing to bring young talent into his set-up.
Mason Mount, 19, trained with the senior squad before the World Cup, while fellow youngsters like Phil Foden, Ryan Sessegnon, Jadon Sancho and Rhian Brewster can all expect to be brought in over the coming years. While Southgate’s substitutions against Croatia left something to be desired, it’s also true that there were not a great deal of options available to him – especially for the link role played by Lingard, where the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would have proven extremely useful.
Those young players, even younger than the likes of Sterling (23) and Alli (22), will bolster the squad and are a genuine reason to be optimistic.
Yes, England suffered from some old failings this summer, and ultimately they were not good enough to win the World Cup, but there was plenty to celebrate along the way and, more importantly, there are plenty of reasons to believe there will be more to celebrate in the future.