England fans’ feelings of excitement and optimism before the World Cup were met with an incredible run to the semi-finals in Gareth Southgate’s first major tournament. A footballing nation was brought together by hope, but ultimately suffered heartbreak at the hands of Croatia. Following the national side’s exploits in Russia, as well as the two latest tests against Spain and Switzerland, are Southgate’s men on the right path to success? Are England a top team and where do they stand now alongside their rivals?
So Are England a Top Team Yet?
With pre-World Cup expectations as sky-high as ever throughout the country, the refreshing differences to previous tournaments were the positive atmosphere in the England camp as well as the results achieved on-field. After years of disappointment at major tournaments, including a humiliating defeat against Iceland just two years ago, the Three Lions reached the semi-finals for the first time since the historic 1966 year. However, the side doesn’t yet appear to be the finished article. Recent tough matches, particularly against Spain, suggest work still must be done to reach the next level and stand among the elite.
Performances Against ‘Big Sides’
The Three Lions advanced through the stages confidently, beating Tunisia and Panama to reach the knockout stage before dispatching Colombia and Sweden on the road to the semi-final. However, people expected to beat all these teams. Losing any of those ties would have surely meant criticism from media and fans alike. The big challenge was to beat Croatia, and after scoring the opener for a dream start, England didn’t quite manage to hang on to the win.
Heartbreak and messages of widespread support for the team and manager ensued, but it seems they haven’t yet found a way to defeat teams of a similar level. The recent game against Spain showed the system needs tweaking as they struggled to break down a resurgent team under new manager Luis Enrique. Southgate’s side were inferior for much of the game, though they did nearly find an equaliser in the dying embers of the game. They will undoubtedly need to improve in coming games to prove they do belong at the top.
The current batch of players is as good as any. Having called-up the third youngest squad at the World Cup, Southgate is showing his willingness to back fresh, hungry talent. Big names like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli are yet to reach their peaks. Youngsters like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Marcus Rashford will have important roles to play in future tournaments if they continue their meteoric rises. Having experienced the disappointment of that semi-final loss, the squad will be growing and maturing together. They will be eager to prove themselves once again. The seemingly obvious talent must be nurtured and developed in order to stand alongside the current big sides. The future seems bright.
Southgate has had a good start to life as England coach and has certainly surprised many people with the success he has had so far. He has created a good atmosphere and friendly environment which has been the pillar for success on the pitch, as the players appear comfortable with each other and with their staff, something which has been missing your years. However, his decisions during matches have been debatable, and arguably too safe. Sometimes you need a coach who is willing to take a risk when matches are going against you.
Eric Dier coming on for Henderson is a like-for-like and negative substitution which, when in search for a goal, won’t change anything in an attacking sense. During the loss against Croatia, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were passengers and weren’t offering the same threat the had done in previous games. Sure, they have the ability to single-handedly create moments of magic, yet the Croats clearly found a way to nullify them. The game was surely crying out for a wildcard like Ruben Loftus-Cheek to give them another dimension to potentially affect the game. In order for the squad to make the next step up, Southgate will need a bit more bottle and a ‘Plan B’ during high-pressure situations to find results.
It is clear England have taken huge steps under Southgate and are in a much better position now than they were two years ago when Roy Hodgson stepped down following a disastrous showing at Euro 2016. The potential of the squad is there, but they cannot yet be on the same page as teams like France and Spain. Both players and staff must try to improve performances against bigger sides to cement themselves at the top of the international game.