Gareth Southgate’s England take on Croatia today at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow for a place in the 2018 FIFA World Cup final with millions back home in England cheering them on.
I was at the media centre press conference before the match against Colombia when manager Southgate was asked if this was England’s best chance to get to the final since Spain and Germany who would have been in their part of draw had been eliminated.
Southgate answered that “perhaps those countries (Spain and Germany) are not as good as they were a few years ago hence they are not here. This means we cannot be looking down on any team that has made it this far instead of those teams”.
That has been the crux of the critics’ argument against this England team: they have not played anyone yet. Well, they have played who they have been asked to play, they have not chosen their opponents like Heavyweight boxing champions can do.
Southgate has shown remarkable bravery in choosing his squad and had made sure he chose players that can play in his system and not the fans’ favourites or those at big Premier League clubs.
And his system has been making sure England played from the back. After England were knocked out of the 2016 European Championships by Iceland then assistant Manager Gary Neville was asked what went wrong. His answer was very instructive and I believe it has influenced Southgate’s philosophy since he took charge.
Neville said and I am paraphrasing here “when things go wrong and in the heat of the battle in a football match, footballers resort to their default modes. Our default mode as English players is to get it long and forward quickly; it is the long balls into the channels. It is chasing the game. In that mode we are easy pickings for the canny European teams.”
This England team do not resort to that default mode. When you have a back three of Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker you have made it abundantly clear that you are going to pass the ball from the back into midfield and progress it from there. In Jordan Pickford there is a goalkeeper who can ping passes into his players with a powerful and accurate left foot. Proper foundation is set.
Further ahead of those players, the play is not so lovely or finely attuned but the plan is never to “run araand like mad” of former England teams. The structure of the team is so clearly defined, you can see what they are trying to do, can see the combination plays and the runs off the ball.
Skipper Harry Kane wears the no 9 but actually plays as the no 10. Raheem Sterling in no 10 starts mostly as the furthest forward but with license to do whatever he wants.
England do not “look the part”. They do not possess the players with the talents of Philippe Coutinho, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and the likes. There is no law that says they should. What makes football such a wonderful sport is that there are many ways and variations in which you can play to win.
It has actually been educating watching them at close quarters like I have done. This might seem like nothing to many but this is the first England side I have seen that feels comfortable passing the ball back to the defenders from the half way line, so they can start to build attacks again.
Croatia had a great opening round with emphatic wins over Nigeria, Argentina and their reserves beating Iceland, and in Luka Modric, they have one of the best players in the tournament. They will fancy their chances against England which should make it an open exciting game.
In 1990, Germany were the best team in the tournament and were favourites to defeat England at this same stage, England have little to fear going into this match except the weight of history and expectations.
As Southgate has been saying since the knock-out rounds started: this is the time for these players to make their own history. I strongly believe they will and the final on Sunday in Moscow beckons.