England Expects Once More


Euphoria is high in the home of football after Gareth Southgate's side completed a calendar year in which they reached the World Cup semi-finals with passage to the last four of the UEFA Nations League.

Ranked fifth in the world by FIFA last month, the Three Lions' win over fourth-ranked Croatia in the UEFA Nations League can only help when November's rankings are announced shortly.


The atmosphere at the national stadium was a memorable one, the most exciting in fact since a do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Poland five years ago.

Following England's FIFA U-17 World Cup and UEFA U-19 wins in 2017, a strong narrative has now emerged of a fertile talent pool flowing swiftly upstream into an energized national team run by the former U-21 coach, who is just the man to give youth a chance.

The meaning of Jadon Sancho running around for the England first team in a competitive fixture a year after playing for the U-17s was impossible to ignore. Perhaps as with Owen Hargreaves a decade before, the fact he has not played professionally in England had helped him reach the national team faster.

Hopes are high then for a successful Euro 2020, whose final is at Wembley, followed by the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, when England's field of dreams should be in full flower.

But so much can change so quickly in football and encouraging though the 2-1 win over Croatia was, one swallow does not make a summer.

So much for the dawn of a new England in Russia: Half of them were missing at Wembley and the three-man defence had reverted to a traditional back four, albeit garnished by the elegant Ben Chilwell at left back with his elegant crosses.

It has also been conveniently forgotten that England registered three straight competitive defeats in 2018 as well.

Only one goal separated them in Russia from Croatia, but the final whistle was a particularly sobering one, met with a unanimous consensus that Southgate's young bucks had been out-gunned, out-muscled and out-thought by a more battle-hardened group of warriors.

That was followed by a resounding 2-0 loss to clearly superior Belgium in the Third Place Playoff and then a 2-1 defeat at Wembley in September to a rejuvenated Spain.

Southgate's stable was a work in progress that night in London compared to Luis Enrique's reborn La Roja thoroughbreds and as we waxed lyrical over our cultured visitors there was certainly no euphoria or giddy talk of us winning the next World Cup as there is now.

While there was still broad support for Southgate's youth revolution, there were also tough questions asked as to why he was still ignoring playmakers like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jonjo Shelvey and penetrative wingers like Andros Townsend and Theo Walcott.

Two months later the wind has changed direction again. England are through to the last four of the Nations League and Spain have been relegated after losing at home to England and away to Croatia, whom they hammered 6-0 as recently as September.

Southgate's England are still clearly on the right track, lighting the clearest career path hitherto from the national youth sides, integrating the St George's Park national training centre and maintaining a modern playing style of building from the back.

But the road to international success is a long and rocky one full of troughs and peaks, advances and setbacks. Talk of a new England is understandable but still premature.

At Wembley against Croatia, Andrej Kramaric was given an age in the box to lead Eric Dier and Ben Stones a merry dance before scoring, while Jordan Pickford almost conceded with an error in the first half and Jesse Lingard cleared off the line in the second.

England grabbed two scrappy goals after the break but had missed a hatful in the first. Harry Kane might have scored the clincher but had otherwise looked under par, as he has for Tottenham this season.

Such details are lost in the champagne of victory but the margins between winning and losing narratives remain as fine as ever.

On that basis, any optimism about the future should be cautious.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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