Before you get into this, you should know that, despite my penchant for criticising the English football team, that’s not what this post is about. I happen to think that this World Cup has seen some good efforts from the English camp, and indeed the hype in Manchester, and throughout the rest of England, came a whisker away from regressing me back to 6 years old, when I would happily have supported England with fervour, not yet in the knowledge that Northern Ireland had a football team.
But anyway, in a world full of biased football comments from English media and fans alike, I just wanted to shine a light on some pertinent points both about this World Cup and the English football team.
Let’s take the World Cup first, because it’s very simple. What a tournament this has been! Have you seen some of the goals scored in this tournament? Did you see each of the big nations being unceremoniously dumped out at every stage by weaker opposition? Did you feel the excitement of the VAR reviews? If you’re a rugby fan, or indeed most other sports, you’ll have felt the excitement of them. Apparently if you only like football then the world is going to end when they inevitably implement VAR across the world.
That’s probably a post for another time. Suffice it to say, if you need controversy to enjoy the sport, then that’s really not a good sport.
Now, the English football team has undoubtedly drawn almost a full nation together, aside from a few exceptions. They’ve gone to Russia with no pressure from their fans or media for the first time in years and have seemingly exceeded everyone’s expectations. A first World Cup semi-final for them in 28 years, and a contender for the Golden Boot award in young Harry Kane. Far from being the underperforming sideshow that many expected, they’ve delighted us with their skill, pace, and finishing ability, beating some of the world’s best on their way to a devastating defeat at the hands of a far-inferior Croatian side. Or have they? That’s certainly how the English sport media (I sound like a conspiracy theorist now) would have you see it. Wake up sheeple!
It’s true that England reaching the semi-final is big news. Nobody enjoyed their woeful 2014 campaign as much as I did. However, it shouldn’t really be big news. Look at the players in that team. The media harped on about how the players had played for the likes of Darlington and Alfreton, and dear knows where else in the lower leagues, but they neglected to mention the fact that for the last few years, they’ve all been plying their trades at the top football teams of England. Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Spurs are all represented in abundance, with smatterings of Leicester, Burnley, and the mighty Everton thrown in for good measure. These are not lower-league players, they are some of the Premier League’s best. They should be expected to reach Quarter and Semi finals with relative ease, especially with the teams they were asked to face along the way.
Let’s have a look at that record, by the way. They scraped past Tunisia in the group stages with a fortunate late goal. They battered Panama 6-1, as every single other team in that tournament (and most in world football) should do, no harm to Panama. They lost to a Belgian reserves team (to get the better draw apparently, even though they were just outplayed). Then they “played” Colombia. Colombia were more intent on cheating and gamesmanship, rather than actually playing football, which allowed England to gain a false sense of superiority. The media had insulted and played down the talent of the Colombian team in the build up and it looked like they were right. That was until Colombia started to actually play around the 75 minute mark. From there, England were on the back foot, shocked at the pace and skill of their opponent’s front men, and the effort paid off for the South Americans, when a late goal scrapped in to send it to Extra Time. Fair play to England for getting through that penalty shoot out, but they should never have been there in the first place, and would have been soundly beaten had Colombia played for the full 90 minutes.
Then came a relatively easy game in Sweden. Not much to worry about against them, and indeed it was the only game apart from Panama where I was comfortable in predicting an English win. And win they did. Well done England, you set-pieced your way to a 2-0 victory against a boring Swedish side with no spark, and booked your place in the Semi-Final. The big one. Against a Croatian team who were billed as having spent all their energy in 2 Extra Time games in a row. An aging team, with no speed and a shaky defence. This one was going to be a walk in the park according to the English media, and there, just a few minutes in, England’s newest golden boy, Kieran Trippier put in what was a pearler of a free kick to put England in front early doors. It was plain sailing from here. But they’d reckoned without one thing – the fact that they’re not as good as they’re meant to be. 30 mins in, and suddenly it had turned into Croatia’s match, and the pressure was sure to tell at some point. And tell it did, with 2 very nice goals capping off a fine, and expected comeback, sending England home, without football in their luggage.
Now it sounds like I took some delight in that result, and that’s because I did. But I felt sorry for the English team too. They did give a good account of themselves to be fair to them, but they were nowhere near the level they need to be at to repeat this feat again. They should have put Belgium away, but their fear of bigger teams stopped them from doing that, and they’ll need to shake that fear off. They should have comfortably put away Tunisia rather than scraping through. They should never have underestimated Colombia and Croatia – it worked once, but not twice. The old failings are still there, masked by a younger, higher quality team than they’ve had in recent years.
They were lauded for their pace and creativity, yet the majority of their goals came from set pieces. They were lauded for their defensive stability, yet they failed to keep a clean sheet for the whole tournament. Even Panama scored against England, let’s not forget. Harry Kane was lauded for his Golden Boot challenging 6-goal tally.
Let’s take a look at that tally, though. Going into the Sweden game, he had 6 goals from 6 attempts. He didn’t play against Belgium, so that was 6 goals from 6 attempts over 3 games. Sounds like a great record doesn’t it? Now consider this. That means that this top class Premier League striker took 6 shots over the course of 3 games. Is that enough shots for a sniper striker like our Harry to be sending towards goal? Absolutely not. If you think it is, then I’m sorry for putting this bluntly but, you’re wrong. “But he held the ball up well and brought others into the game”, you say. That as may be, he didn’t even do that as much as people think, and he didn’t give himself the chances that a striker should.
Let’s look at the manner of the goals too. 2 lucky headers against Tunisia, a goal against Panama that rattled the back of his heels without him knowing anything about it, and somehow managing to find its own way into the back of the net, and 3 penalties. Your golden goalscorer had 6 shots in 3 games, and 3 of them were from the penalty spot. That’s embarrassing. Far from being an historic Golden Boot record, it’s a flukey tally which should see him refuse to accept the award, out of courtesy, after the final. Unless of course, Griezmann bags a hattrick in the final and saves Kane the trouble.
My point is that, yes, England have done well to get through to a semi-final, but the hype surrounding the team itself is misplaced. The results have not correlated with the performances, and that should be a worry to English fans, not a boon. Luck runs out, and soon this team, if they continue the way they played in this tournament, will be right back where they were, as the laughing stock of world football.
That’s not to say there weren’t some highlights among the players. Jordan Pickford in goals was incredible, pulling off vital saves and dominating his area. Kieran Tripper was phenomenal down the right side, putting on fine crossing displays game in, game out. Stones and Maguire were exceptional for the majority of both their defensive and attacking duties. The set piece plays were immaculately pulled off. The penalties were largely ruthless. Henderson showed that he’s still got it in him to boss the midfield, and was more of a captain than Captain Kane.
But let’s not forget that Sterling, Alli and Lingard all fell well short of the mark. Kane, although he has 6 goals to his name, was far from prolific, and should and could have done much better. And Rashford clearly should have played more but that’s hardly his fault.
A word for Gareth Southgate though. His management has drawn a nation closer together. He’s the Winston Churchill of our times, and he may, single-handedly, save M&S’s clothing department from closure with sales of waistcoats “hilariously” on the rise. He’s been a great manager, and even managed to dislocate his shoulder while running. Buffoon and Legend all at once, he’ll be a true England footballing hero now.
I personally can’t wait for Euro 2020 qualification to begin, and hope that both England and my beloved Northern Ireland get through with relative ease. Would there be anything better than an England/Northern Ireland Euro 2020 final in Wembley? Hardly.