The Law of Large Numbers dictates that England’s overwhelming surplus of penalty shootout defeats at major international tournaments will eventually balance out, such is the serendipitous nature of a means to deciding high-stakes football games that is oft referred to as a lottery.
But to suggest the Three Lions hit the jackpot on Tuesday night through a long overdue stroke of good fortune in order to equalise the equation we understand as fair fate, or at the very least mathematical probably, would be superficial in its misrepresentation of the incredible impact Gareth Southgate’s had on an England national team that was in the most horrendous, seemingly irreparable of messes when he inherited it from Sam Allardyce less than two years ago.
Eric Dier’s winning penalty was, after all, a watershed moment for England, a driven spot kick that expelled so many haunting and downweighing horrors of the past. And while probability obliges such occurrence at some point anyway, the fact is it didn’t happen at just some point; it happened under a manager who unwillingly participated in England’s generations-spanning penalty nightmares at Euro 96 and twenty years later would quickly go on to change the entire mentality of Three Lions football.
Indeed, England’s first penalty shootout win in over two decades, their first ever at a World Cup and only their second from eight at major international tournaments, wasn’t merely fortunate, overdue, charmed or the consequence of divine intervention from the beautiful game’s gods. Rather, it was symptomatic of the incredible work Southgate has done to transform the England psyche in so many crucial respects.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten how severe England’s nadir was when he initially took the job as caretaker back in September 2016. Not only had Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions just imploded at Euro 2016 in the most embarrassing of fashions, completely losing their nerve in a humbling defeat to Iceland, but predecessor Allardyce had just been dismissed after what was effectively a newspaper sting.
The reputation of the team and the managerial post was on the edge of an unprecedented low, while new barriers had been created between the team and the press, and that reflected in performance. During Southgate’s first international break in charge, England just about beat Malta 2-0 at Wembley, before drawing with Slovenia on the road. Confidence within the camp was dwarfed by uncertainty and confusion, tabloid analysis was harsh and personal, and a feeling of painfully familiar underwhelm overshadowed the supporters.
But by Southgate’s second international break, there were already signs of important improvement as a 3-0 win over Scotland was followed by an exciting 2-2 draw with Spain, and that marked the beginning of a transition towards the England side we see today. The next significant watershed came in England’s subsequent outing – a 1-0 defeat to Germany in Signal Iduna Park in which a three-man defence was used by Southgate for the very first time.
From that game on, England’s philosophy has drastically changed. The Three Lions have gone from viewing three-man defences as detrimentally alien to it becoming their exclusive system at Russia 2018, while the style of play has transformed as well because Southgate has changed the metrics England selections are based upon.
Defenders are now being chosen for their footballing ability rather than the capacity to command their own penalty boxes, midfielders are being called up for their ingenuity and guile instead of their power and stamina. Even though there have been difficult moments, England have played at this World Cup as a team who want to excite, entertain and inspire by sticking to philosophical commitments, and that ambitiousness has only resonated amongst fans who’ve endured the get-the-job-done approach for far too long.
It’s seeped into other aspects of the England team too. The press are now friends, or at the very least merry acquaintances who can’t always be trusted to behave in one’s best interests, and there appears to be a real togetherness amongst this current crop that the Golden Generation never seemed all that interested in.
That’s not just a consequence of culling those mentally scared by previous failed expeditions either; eleven members of the squad that suffered the shock defeat to Iceland are part of Southgate’s World Cup team, and all but one – Gary Cahill – featured against Colombia. The England boss hasn’t simply found younger and less fearful minds, he’s changed old, battle-damaged ones too.
It’s combined to create an atmosphere where England no longer seem shackled by the past, or at the very least seem to believe they have the power and talent to break free from it, and an ideology that nothing is impossible, that history isn’t doomed to continually repeat itself, that this England team can separate from their predecessors in limitless ways should they choose to do so.
And much of that stems back to Southgate and his infamous moment at Euro 96. His calmness and composure, which has proved the perfect leveller for what is still an incredibly young and inexperienced team, and his willingness to embrace the press in a way that has Dele Alli and Harry Kane taking on journalists in Darts tournaments at the training camp, originates from that disastrous spot kick against Germany.
Southgate’s understanding is that it can’t get any worse for him than a single strike of the ball that inevitably defined his playing career. His fearlessness gained from despair has reverberated through the team and created the kind of atmosphere where England can finally overcome the penalty phenomena that has spanned the exciting Three Lions sides of the 1990s, the Golden Generation and even the Hodgson years. He’s built a team with the nerve, the bottle and belief to carve their own history rather than be slaves to it.
That’s not to say everything about this England team is perfect, or that the performance against Colombia didn’t contain flaws. Jesse Lingard, Alli and Raheem Sterling just couldn’t quite get into the game, and after Harry Kane’s normal time penalty England worryingly failed to move up a gear by grabbing the extra goal their utter dominance of the South Americans deserved.
In fact, there were moments after Kane’s goal when the old, defeat-fearing England suddenly returned, forgetting the new emphasis on elegant and composed building from the back. Clearances were hoofed to Colombia’s unchallenged full-backs time and again, Kyle Walker lost concentration to almost gift Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado a goal on the break, and the decision to bring on Eric Dier – albeit, England’s penalty hero in the end – seemed to amplify the negativity, the mindset of simply trying to hold on.
That almost cost England dearly as Yerry Mina rose highest at a stoppage time corner to equalise with just a few minutes left on the clock. For the first half of extra time too, England were completely shell-shocked, every player in red just about content with merely surviving in the game. But then came the vital twist in psyche that has always seemed to escape England during the last 30 years. Kane and company regrouped, refocused and rediscovered the belief Southgate has instilled within them.
It provided a revival of the dominance of normal time in the second half of extra time, which in turn paved the way for the confidence England took into the shootout – five excellently executed penalties, albeit one stopped by David Ospina, alongside an incredible save from Jordan Pickford.
The Law of Large Numbers obliges the consideration that footballing fate finally started to balance itself out against Colombia, that such glory in a penalty shootout would always happen somewhere along the never-ending tapestry of international football tournaments.
But England could never manage to do that themselves under Hodgson, Allardyce, Sven Goran-Eriksson or even Glenn Hoddle, so why would fortune swing back in England’s favour now? You have to look at what the difference is, and the biggest one is a manager who has completely lifted a team in dire straits to transform it in playing style, organisation, off-pitch mindset and on-pitch mentality.
To do that all in less than two years, to rewrite England history from a post that wasn’t even officially his until the last day of November in 2016, is purely fantastic work from Southgate. Even if England don’t get any further at this World Cup, he’s managed to remove the most daunting and detrimental of psychological hurdles.
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