Hope and Expectation

Hope and Expectation

July 2018 | Sport

Another world cup campaign ends in heroic failure. England were never going to win this tournament, but they have the foundations to win the next one.

Another glorious campaign may have ended in heroic failure, but the turn around in attitude towards the England football team over the last two weeks has been amazing and potentially long-lasting.

England went into the tournament derided as one of the worst teams to wear the shirt, and with a nagging concern that they wouldn't get out of the group. Compare this to the last few days where people were seriously talking as if England were going to win the tournament.

The key to this has been the attitude of the team. These are not the superstars of past generations, many of the players in it have reached the top by the long route. They are products of lower league clubs, rather than Premier league academies. Even some of the academy players such as Kane have extensive lower league experience. This has shown in their willingness to work hard and play for the team. Many of the players would not have expected to play in the World Cup two years ago.

Harry Magiure was struggling to break into the first team of a Championship side. Jordan Pickford was reserve goalkeeper at a Sunderland side widely considered to be among the worst ever to play in the Premier League. Kieran Trippier was a Man City youth reject playing for Spurs' reserve team. Now all three are among the stars of the 2018 World Cup.

The key to this is a manager with a plan. Gareth Southgate took over the team unexpectedly in late 2016, and set about building an England team that fit his footballing philosophy. This is how the best club managers operate, but it rarely happens at international level.

This has corrected two long-standing problems with the England team. Past England teams have been excellent defensively and devastating on the counter-attack, but rarely looked like they knew how to keep the ball or knew what to do with the ball when they had it. The FA has been trying to change the footballing culture in England for a long time to fix this, and it appears to be finally paying off.

He has also picked the players to fit the system, leaving some of his best players at home. Many countries don't have the strength in depth to leave star players at home just because they don't fit a specific system. Even the top sides such as Spain (with Diego Costa) in this tournament suffer from this. England during the David Beckham era were especially guilty of it. They went into the 2006 and 2010 world cups among the favourites, but failed because the 11 best English players simply couldn't play together into the same team. Formations were consistently chopped and changed to fit all of England's star midfielders together, but they never looked a cohesive unit.

The revelation of this world cup is that this team have looked like a unit, playing to a game plan with clear intent. The obvious humbleness and team spirit shown has been refreshing after decades of teams containing egotistical superstars. They have engaged people not otherwise interested in football, and set up a platform for future success. The fact that England have looked like a top football nation at the same time has come as a surprise.

They simply need the players to build on it. There are a number of gaps in this squad, particularly in midfield where Jesse Lingard has been inconsistent and Dele Alli has been far from his best. Harry Kane frequently dropped back into midfield during the knockout stages to compensate for this weakness, thus causing problems converting chances further forwards.

Fortunately for England they have the players coming through to potentially strengthen the team significantly in future tournaments. England are world champions at both under 20 and under 17 level, the first country to win both in the same year. Some of the players in those teams and the equally successful under 19 and under 21 sides are on the edge of the England team and are already first team regulars at club level.

It is noticeable that the reaction to the Croatia defeat has been very accepting. There has been none of the blame or anger that accompanied previous tournament exits. That England made it so far in such style has been celebrated. This reflects that England have achieved more than expected, and were beaten by a better side with the best midfield in world football. With a clear system in place, and upcoming players with the skills to play it, expectations will not be so low next time.

Written by Alan Chatfield