England’s performances in recent World Cups have left the nation starved of success. The expectations placed upon Sven Goran Eriksson’s 2006 side meant that anything other than victory that year would be a disappointment. Fabio Capello’s rigid pragmatism in 2010 yielded weak, bleary-eyed performances followed by humiliation, rather than the strong challenge most England fans expected. Four years ago, Roy Hodgson managed a side whose expectations were now so low that oddly they had never been higher. Defeat to Italy and Uruguay, and a bland goalless draw with Costa Rica saw England exit at the group stage in an embarrassment that would only be surpassed at the Euros two years later.
England have never been a team to thrive under pressure, or indeed thrive under an apparent lack of pressure. But with Russia 2018 around the corner, it’s difficult to know what to expect from Gareth Southgate’s men this time around, and increasingly tough to place England in World Cup betting 2018. Qualification saw the Three Lions go unbeaten, and yet there was a sense of drudgery to the team’s performances, as if each player was unsure of his worth in the grand scheme of things, forever looking over his shoulder for the next man snarling on the bench looking to take his place.
This understated quality is a reflection of Southgate as a manager. There is very little to excite fans about the former Middlesbrough boss, and yet there is very little to cause doubt. He has stewarded England admirably since the Sam Allardyce debacle, has remained level headed in interviews and press conferences, and tried to instill a tactical shift to bring England up to speed with the rest of the footballing world. Could it be that this understated, no qualms style could yield tangible success for England at this year’s World Cup?
Perhaps what ultimately let Roy Hodgson down was how impressive England looked in each qualifying campaign, and how when it came to the big stage the players who had looked like world beaters in the preliminaries now looked like pub players. Over the 20 qualification matches overseen by Hodgson, in both the World Cup and European Championships, England won 16 and drew 4, scoring 62 goals in the process. It’s a simple fact that winning games in qualifying creates a high level of expectation to perform in the finals themselves, and this was Hodgson’s downfall. The players who were able to steamroller Lithuania and Estonia crumbled when faced with more determined opposition.
With Southgate however, England’s performances in qualification were efficient, if often insipid. Yes, the side remained unbeaten for a third successive international qualifying campaign, but there was little to inspire fans that this was the dawning of a new era of England football. But perhaps this is exactly what this England team needs — an absence of fanfare and frenzy, to be able to focus on the basics and not be fooled by ideas above their stations. Southgate brings with him a sense of calm, like a cool summer’s evening after the baking hot extremes of the preceding hours.
Where previous managers have had to deal with big-name individuals, not least Sven and Capello with the so-called ‘golden generation’, Southgate is perhaps paradoxically blessed with a more mundane collection of players. Outside of the promising attacking triumvirate of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling, this England squad is a rather humdrum assortment of solid, if uninspiring club performers. But these are players eager to assert themselves in a major finals and prove to their manager and indeed the world that they can compete at the highest level. They have everything to prove, where perhaps in the past a lot of England players had everything to lose.
There are few egos in this England team, and you feel that Southgate is the perfect man to ensure that no-one considers themselves greater than the team itself. Indeed, his no frills approach should help to coax the best out of the likes of Kane and Sterling, players who in the past have failed to cope with the pressure and intensity of international football. Similarly, the back three/five introduced by the manager has bred a newfound sense of structure to England’s defence. Southgate has quietly gone about his business of giving this raw, largely untested team the best chance of success at the World Cup in his own dignified way.
It’s worth noting that the draw has been kind to England. While Belgium will provide stern opposition in the final group game, in playing Tunisia and Panama before that match England have an opportunity to secure their last sixteen berth before that showdown. This will bring with it expectation, but then this is the same level of opposition that Southgate’s England dispatched with efficiency in qualifying. England must do their best to avoid the media hype and stupor, and focus on the task at hand.
Indeed, this applies to circumstances off the pitch as well. Rumours abound that England fans in particular will be targeted by Russian hooligans after the events of Marseille at Euro 2016. This could provide distraction for the team, and Southgate’s job is to ensure his players are focused only on football, to let the relevant authorities deal with any trouble that may arise. Perhaps England’s best course is to simply forget that this is a World Cup at all, to play with freedom and courage.
England’s failures at the previous two major tournaments undoubtedly work in Southgate’s favour. The humiliations of 2014 and 2016 mean that the blind optimism which so often grips England fans has been reduced almost to ashes. Supporters simply want to see their team play with pride, to do themselves justice for once on the big stage. With the golden generation no more, a dignified run to the quarter finals would surely be deemed a step in the right direction, where ten years ago such a result would be greeted with outrage.
As the wheels of time roll around, expectations change like the seasons. Perhaps this is the spring time for this new-look England side, a chance to blossom and bloom on the world stage in an atmosphere where little is truly expected of them, and little is expected of their manager. Now is the time for England’s future heroes elect to make a stand, to show that the decade ahead can yield more joy than the one receding. Another drab showing will see the nation’s almost perpetual disappointment continue, but under the quiet stewardship of Gareth Southgate, this England side have a chance to inspire hope that a new sun is rising from the ashes of past despair.