One rarely wants to stick the knife in so soon after another has fallen to the floor. Neither does one want to seem pedantically over-critical when a group of young players did all they could and did so well to get where they did. But I’m going to do that anyway. Maybe not pedantically, yet if we remain in a mist of eurphoria and paint the players as heroes after coming away empty-handed apart from happy memories, nothing shall be learned.
However, I also believe it’s good to start with the positives, as there have been a few.
Mentality – The team is more professional and less egotistical than years gone by. In recent squads, there were many individuals who believed in their own hype, making it very hard for coaches to mold them into a functioning team. Rio Ferdinand recently admitted the Manchester United lads would sit apart from the Chelsea players, fearing at club level the opposition might use something against them. Gareth Southgate seems to have got rid of that, as well as the irritating WAG culture, and worked on gelling the team and improving the psychology of the players, as well as basic manners i.e. no mobile phones at dinner time.
Positivity – Ties into mentality, but there have lots of positivity coming from the England camp, lots players smiling, not moaning about being bored and enjoying the moment. When I’d hear of boredom at a major tournament in the past it would make me want to scream with frustration. Many of us would swap our legs and arms to be a participant at the World Cup, but the moaning reminded you of how pampered their lives are. In this World Cup, we heard of harmony, family and togetherness; something I am sure Southgate and his coaches focused on. I wonder how many faith healers they had? This calm and harmony was played out a lot on the pitch as well. There were moments of discomfort, of course, but on many occasion the team remained calm and weathered the storm. Mind you, this is the minimal you would expect from a “wannabe champion“, but it’s rarely the case with England. Look what happened against Iceland two years ago. Now, there are no excuses or anger; players owned up to mistakes, accepting referees decisions, dusting ourselves off and getting on with it. There’s also no blaming winter breaks or the amount of foreigners in the Premier League. We have a pool of players who look hungry but lost to a better team. We now have a marker of where we are and where we want to be. In next tournament, we need to ditch the “team of youths” tag for a “team of winners” mentality. The only way to do that is by beating teams, and by that I mean beating the best. That remains to be seen.
In terms of their new found fame after this World Cup though, it will be interesting to see how many players keep their feet on the ground and which lose their heads. We know how the British press likes to build people up, then knock them down when they falter. The team seem pretty mature, but fame can do strange things to people with disastrous outcomes. Remember Paul Gascoigne?
Preparation – Taking the tournament game by game. Well, up until the last game, when the players, media and fans underestimated Croatia and got too excited looking at the final. Of course, the players are only human and they know the rewards of what lies ahead if they beat a certain team. Yet there seems to be more focus on the here and now, being positive and working on things that beat the opposition, rather than disrespecting or under- or over-estimating a team. This, I have read in books about Brazilian, German and Italian football, is what former champions have done. It’s basic and should have been learned years ago. We have read in the past when England have lost in penalties that the players hadn’t practiced in the previous days, with pundits and coaches using the excuse of “It’s a lottery”. Yes it’s hard to recreate the pressures of the scene of the long walk up to the penalty spot, and yes there is an element of luck in which way the goalkeeper dives for the ball, but England were using these reasons as not to practice. Southgate, no. Maybe through his own experience, he had the players practice a lot, with a clear plan of his penalty takers and researching where opposing players place penalties, giving England the tools to success over Colombia. Again, basic, but these were things not being done before. The players seem nicer and more grounded, unlike Wayne Rooney who berated fans after they booed the team off the pitch after England played very uninspiringly in a 0-0 draw with Algeria in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup (a game which I will always remember for a pigeon feeling comfortable enough to sit on the crossbar of the goal England were shooting at), despite many fans paying their right arm to be there. This England team seem more grateful for their support now.
New identity – I’m a wee bit sceptical about this point, something that has been bellowed at us over and over again from the FA’s press team. England’s DNA, etc. I do think, however, Southgate has adopted a new style that England can work with and is more pleasing to the eye, based on high-tempo possession football, something similar to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. We will need a plan B if games aren’t going to plan though, as witnessed against Croatia. Tactical flexibility and being quick to change a faltering system is crucial at this level. Back to the new identity, we saw signs of it in the group stage in Euro 2016. Roy Hodgson, despite being a scapegoat after the Iceland loss, had us playing possession football and dominating teams (apart from against Iceland), while using quite a few of the same players that played at this World Cup. It just lacked the clinical edge, especially against Russia and Slovakia. Southgate has adopted this game-plan, changing the formation to a back three and two high-placed wing-backs, and playing one fast-paced full-back amongst those three centre-backs, being Kyle Walker; a move that raised a few eyebrows at the time but seems to have worked out well. The team play out from defence more effectively and the team strung many good moves together which won many plaudits, including fromthe man who apparently possesses the hand of God, Diego Maradona. They apply pressure when without the ball and attack with speed. They need to be more clinical, especially Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard, as well as provide more service to Harry Kane. England also improved their set pieces, looking dangerous at every corner and free-kick near the box, with a great number of goals coming that way. We have a springboard to something.
Smarter – We know how to draw free-kicks and penalties from teams. In years gone by, we were too honest and naive. Now we have learnt the tricks of the trade to go down easily under challenges, helping to win free-kicks in dangerous areas. There were moments where England players were wrestled to the ground and we received nothing, especially against Tunisia. There were other times when we invited the opposition to make a challenge and hit the ground, especially against Panama and Colombia. Both teams looked nervous when England came forward and would use violence to stop Kane and co. It’s just England took advantage, something thtu I’ll. These little advantages count. It’s been the case for years in Southern Europe and South America. England are just catching up. It’s not flopping like Neymar. It’s being smart. It’s not fair play; but fair play wins you monetary prizes, being smart gets you far in tournament football tournaments
New players – Southgate set a good example by selecting players who have played well regularly for their clubs, rather than remaining a little too loyal to players who have been injured or had bad form and walk straight into the squad. Joe Hart, Jack Wilshire and Adam Lallana are three examples. Most the players earn their place rather than get it through privilege, adding competition and quality throughout the ranks. I personally would of still taken Jack Wilshire instead of Fabian Delph due to his excellent range of passing and being a motor in the team, which include could have done with against Croatia. Then again, I’m not the England manager, nor have I coached them to a World Cup semi-final, let alone coached an actual game. What do I know? Gareth Southgate has been in England set up for some time. He knows the young players coming through, as well as lean on the players that were injured, such as Chamberlain.
The World Cup has made heroes out of a few England players, especially Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier. Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard played good in parts, while Harry Kane started well, should end up Golden Boot winner, despite fading towards the end.
There we go. A lot of positives. The next post, the negatives…or more so, things to work on.