It was understandable that England fans were pleased to have some self-respect restored after debacles of 2014 and 2016, and they had every right to take pride in the way they were represented by Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and others. However, where they previously understated the prospects of the English team, they are now vastly overstating this year’s accomplishment.
There was always every prospect of England reaching the latter stages of the tournament once the draw was made. In the group, they had only to get past small North African country, Tunisia, and a Central American country whose population is smaller than Scotland’s and whose main sport is baseball, Panama. After that, a second round encounter with a team from the weakest group in the tournament (a group with no previous finallist at either a World Cup or a European Championship) was assured, making the quarter final a likelihood. Even at that, England progressed to that stage having lost the other group game against Belgium (still a country with barely a sixth of England’s population) and then via a penalty shootout. Then, in the quarterfinal, there was a bit of luck, after Germany had surprisingly folded in the first round for the first time since 1938, that it was not the world champions but rather a very average Sweden who awaited, and thus the semi-final was reached for only the third time.
Having played no country which had even reached a World or European Final within the lifetime of someone of average age in England, and only one country with a population more than a fifth as large, England were in a World Cup semi-final. Then there was another stoke of luck – due to the vagaries of the draw, a country smaller than Scotland which was only there courtesy of two penalty shootouts awaited, Croatia. This century, only Germany in 2002 had a comparably easy route to the Final. There was a difference, though. That German side (the one trounced by England in qualifying, in fact) made the most of their luck and got to the Final. Despite scoring first, England in 2018 still contrived not to.
For a country of such a small population, Croatia has an astonishingly good team packed with players who have done all there is to do at club level. But England will surely regret the missed opportunity. In 2014, finallists Germany had seen off past winners and hosts Brazil and past winners France, and Argentina had seen off three-time finallists the Netherlands. In 2010, Spain beat past then three-times winners Germany and the Netherlands beat five-times winners Brazil and two-times winners Uruguay. In 2006 Italy had to come past Germany and France had to get past each of Spain and Brazil. In other words, you generally don’t get to the Final without beating other major sides – typically past winners or at very least multiple finallists.
England’s run was, therefore, so straightforward. As ever, the media vastly exaggerated the scale of the achievement when England dispatched tiny Panama (in its first ever World Cup); and then lost the plot entirely after beating Sweden (a country with a population only slightly larger than Greater London). You can, of course, only beat the teams in front of you. But that is just the problem – England didn’t!
England’s overall record, despite not playing a past winner, was played 7, won 3, drew 1, lost 3. In reality, that is mid-table obscurity.
While there was much to commend in the way the team went about their business and, particularly, in the way the manager conducted himself, the fact is all the same failure traits were apparent. In times of desperation against real quality – Colombia in extra time or Croatia or Belgium more or less throughout – England were overrun in midfield and resorted to punting the ball forward aimlessly. A fuss was made about scoring more goals than 1966 but half of them in competitive play were against the worst team in the tournament – and all this while conceding on average more than one a game.
The problem, therefore, is that although England’s long suffering fans had every right to revel in their good fortune, they should be under no illusions for the future that that is what it was. England’s players still remain tactically behind, unable to switch a game during it; arguably they remain technically behind too, overly relying on set pieces; and there remains no evident ability to kill or turn a game by maintaining possession for long periods. Even in games England dominated, actual chances in open play were few and defensive vulnerabilities evident. More than that, the profound failure to be able to analyse the game – so obvious when listening to the tiresome “punditry” which accompanied the run – suggests England are still not learning.
There are four Western European countries with comparable populations to England – Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Each of these other four has won at least one major tournament and reached at least three Finals this century alone. England haven’t even reached a Final in over 50 years, and never away from home. The scale of the difference is stark, and demonstrates why the odd semi here and there should not be overstated. England should be in semifinals fairly regularly – and winning them quite often.
This is not to say good runs should not be celebrated. But it is a stark warning that there is in fact little evidence that a corner has truly been turned. There is some hope that youth development has improved so the decade to come should indeed be an improvement on the one which has just passed. However, for as long as the prime objective of English football is to maintain the richest league in the world rather than the best national team, it is unlikely much will truly change.
As a separate point, there was an interesting discussion on Twitter about whether final placing should be the ultimate determinant of how well a team did. Essentially, on that basis, England 2018 are the second Best England World Cup team ever, joint with 1990.
I see the logic of that, but dispute it! In 2002, for example, England faced former finallists Sweden, former double winners Argentina and 200m-strong Nigeria in the group, before meeting former European champions Denmark in the knock-out round and then being eliminated in the quarter final by Brazil en route to their fifth title. Given the quality of the opposition, I would argue that team did better than the 2018 team, whose opposition were of lower calibre. I would certainly argue that the 1990 team, which faced then current European champions the Netherlands, beat Belgium and lost on penalties to eventual winners for the third time West Germany, had a clearly better record than 2018’s.
But it’s definitely arguable, so thoughts on that welcome!