So the wait goes on, football won’t be going home after all. England’s World Cup exit was a brutal disappointment and inevitably some will refer to this being the same old England; going out to the first world class opponent they face at a major competition. However this was a very different England and an exit that suggests losing in Qatar delayed rather than ended this team’s quest for a first trophy since 1966.
Something Old, Something New
As an observer of England’s tournament exits going back down through the decades there were familiar sentiments in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to France. There is bitterness towards Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio who’s hapless running of the game and inability to spot clear fouls cost England dearly. The echo in the past goes all the way back to 1986 and Ali Ben Nasser’s failure to spot Diego Maradona’s blatant handball that sent England crashing at the Azteca Stadium. There was also Jorge Larrionda who in 2010 somehow failed to spot Frank Lampard’s rasping drive crossing several feet over the goal line for what would have been an equalizer against Germany.
The difference was for all the raging about poor decisions of which England were certainly victim, they in truth were beaten by better teams on the day. Against Argentina in ’86, England barely produced a shot on goal prior to going two down to Maradona’s mix up impudence and brilliance, they did show enough spirit to mount a fight back to 2-1 but even the most one eyed England fans can’t seriously claim England were the better team. In South Africa, England were largely abysmal against a dynamic young Germany team bar five minutes in which they found the back of the net twice, eventually falling to an embarrassing 4-1 defeat.
Bad luck is another enduring feeling for England at the World Cup, the most obvious example coming 20 years ago in Shizouka when Ronaldinho’s freakish free kick looped over David Seaman and in to hand Brazil a 2-1 win. Then England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson has since revealed he’s often crossed the Brazilian playmaker’s path and always asked whether Ronaldinho meant the shot or was is it a mis-hit cross, to which he has yet to receive a definitive response. The goal was certainly unlucky but England failed to produce a response in that game despite having a numerical advantage for the last 33 minutes, the manner was cruel but the result was ultimately fair.
The missed penalty is another familiar curse of England exits, albeit this one came inside 90 minutes. Eriksson would suffer successive tournament exits in 2004 and 2006 to Portugal on spot kicks but again England were on the back foot for much of those two encounters and needed a spirited rearguard action to force the same outcome against Argentina in 1998. More recently they were played off the park by Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012 and again suffered penalty heartbreak, few would argue England deserved to progress that night.
For all these familiar signposts of looming tournament doom, there was a significant difference in Qatar, England clearly deserved far better than they got. Statistics can be used to make almost any argument in football; the often used xG is becoming ever more tiresome. However it’s difficult to find any that point to defending champions France being the better side on Saturday night, England had far more dribbles at the French defence with Buyako Saka repeatedly torching Theo Hernandez in a manner Kylian Mbappe couldn’t do to Kyle Walker. England had more possession, more shots, more shots on target and of course got the worst of the bumbling refereeing decisons of Sampaio. France to their credit did what champions do and found a way, Antione Griezmann’s brilliant cross for Olivier Giroud’s winner showed that, but England at the very least deserved to send the game to extra time, this is a bitter pill for England to swallow.
England were a very different animal in 2022 to what we’ve seen in the past, dominating opponents en-route to the last eight, with a national record 13 goals scored in the tournament and three clean sheets from five games. Their depth of attacking talent has been extraordinary and when they’ve hit top gear they’ve proved too hot to handle, forcing a championship France backline into blind panic and cynical fouls. England didn’t progress as far in the tournament as they did in Gareth Southgate’s previous outings in 2018 and 2021 but the performance levels they found were a notch above those in Russia four years ago or at Wembley 16 months ago. That should be the positive for England as they look towards Euro ’24 in Germany.
It’s not yet certain if Southgate will continue as manager. In recent tournaments Southgate was criticized for being too pragmatic in his approach as England lost the initiative in both the World Cup 2018 semi-final and Euro ’20 final, however nobody could argue he didn’t show an aggressive mindset in Qatar and whilst his decisions were not flawless he did get the big decisions right and banished the memory of a disappointing Nations League campaign. The FA clearly want Southgate to continue, however he has spoken since England’s exit of the pressure entailed with the job and needing to take time out before committing.
Southgate’s record as manager is second only to World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey. England have only won 12 knockout games since ’66 with half coming under Southgate’s watch at the last three tournaments. His critics have often sighted Southgate has more talent to chose from than his predecessors. Whilst it’s true the current crop is amongst the best England have had, the class of 2018 was a limited group that included the likes of Ashley Young, Fabian Delph, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jesse Lingard and Danny Welbeck yet they produced England’s best result since 1990.
England have comparatively few potential retirements in the squad as they looks to the future. The oldest players remain Jordan Henderson, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier all of whom are now 32. All will consider their next moves carefully although Liverpool captain Henderson who’s spent the last two years on the fringes of the first eleven would seem unlikely to retire having regained his place during the tournament. Walker too seems more likely to stick around for now having fought his way back from injury into the first eleven. Trippier as been described as a soldier to the team by Southgate but featured sparingly this time after being a key contributor in the last two tournaments.
One player not going anywhere is captain Harry Kane who has shouldered the burden of England’s World Cup elimination. Kane will move on from his penalty miss and will break England’s goal-scoring record next year. He does however have an intriguing decision at club level with 18 months left on his Spurs contract and Bayern Munich looking to pounce. Should Kane opt to leave North London, the move to Bavaria not only offers a guarantee of medals but a shorter domestic season that could help prolong his England career into his mid 30s.
A Bright Future
The youth of England’s team is astonishing with the starting attacking trident of Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Saka all still under 23. England’s sudden production line of talent is no accident, the most impactful change in the England set up over the last decade has been the creation of the St Georges Park National Football Centre. Modelled on the highly successful French academy at Clairefontaine, England’s first cohort to enter the academy won the U-20 World Cup in 2017 and England’s youth teams have collected a glut of trophies since, Foden notably the standout player of England’s U-17 World Cup win. Winning at youth level has succeeded in fostering the ‘Club England’ mentality that was clearly lacking in the early 2000s ‘golden generation’ as well as helping develop talent both on the pitch and in the dug out.
England’s latest success came in July by winning the U-19 European Championships for the second time in three tournaments. The 2023 calendar doesn’t include a senior finals, but England will head to Indonesia for the U-20 World Cup potentially with a squad including precocious talents such as Joe Gelhardt, James McAtee, Liam Delap, Aaron Ramsey and Sam Greenwood. In June the Under 21’s will head to Georgia for the Euro U-21 finals with the likes of Jacob Ramsey, Anthony Gordon, Angel Gomes, Luke Thomas and Harvey Elliott amongst their ranks. Clearly only a minority of youth players make it to the senior team, but the continued emphasis on success at youth level is essential to the continued development of the senior side.
England’s senior team will reconvene in March to begin European Championship qualifiers and will be able to bring back from injury Chelsea fullbacks Reece James and Ben Chilwell and will hope Jadon Sancho and Tammy Abraham can regain form and their places in the squad. England have barely scratched the surface of James Maddison’s talent and winger Callum Hudson-Odoi has finally found his feet with after following Sancho and Bellingham’s lead with a move to the Bundesliga. There’s new attacking talent on the way too with left wing Ryan Sessegnon, midfielders Elliott and Ramsey together with forwards Emile Smith-Rowe, Harvey Barnes and Eberechi Eze possible new additions.
The biggest concern for England remains central defence. Harry Maguire put a torrid time at Manchester United behind him with a strong World Cup, but behind Maguire and John Stones the options look thin. AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori is likely to be given another chance along with Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi. Ben White left Qatar early for family reasons, leading to tabloid speculation he didn’t settle in the squad but still looks a key player for the future along with Chelsea’s Trevor Chalobah.
The Road to Germany
A look at the current state of European football should make England fans very hopeful of winning next time out. Italy who edged England in the Euro final are now in the midst of a full rebuild having lost their veteran stars, a qualifier in Rome next year offers England an early chance to build momentum towards the finals. Hansi Flick is struggling to find the right blend for Germany, Belgium are about to start over, Spain and Netherlands are looking to move on under new management. Croatia have remarkably made it to the last four again in Qatar, but surely this will be the last dance for 37-year-old talisman Luka Modric. Portugal should be a contender despite a shock elimination to Morocco, with the younger generation showing there is life after Cristiano Ronaldo.
France of course aren’t going anywhere with Messrs Mbappe, Dembele and Tchouaméni set to be around for years to come and at 31 Griezmann has at least one more tournament left in the tank. However after the World Cup the French will need to replace both record cap holder Hugo Lloris and record goalscorer Giroud. France will hope to welcome back injured trio Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, but by the time Euro ‘24 kicks off Benzema will be 36 whilst Pogba and Kante have been beset by injuries in recent years. It does seem England vs France has replaced Spain vs Germany as the rivalry for supremacy in continental football.
The nature of tournament football is you don’t always get what you deserve. Brazilian fans will recall how in both 1982 & ‘86 Brazil dazzled their way to the brink of the semi-finals only to be denied in epic encounters with Italy & France respectively. England fans may remember how at Euro ‘96 their team (which included Southgate) rode their luck to edge past an excellent Spain to set up that memorable semifinal with Germany. For England, Qatar 2022 will to quote the Three Lions lyric be remembered as one of those oh so nears. However England’s performances at this World Cup suggest those years of hurt may finally be over soon.