Tired legs, tired minds. In the end, on the day, England just couldn’t do enough to protect or improve their delicate lead over an older, wiser, wilier and more battle-hardened Croatia side. And England fans are left feeling like they’ve just come to the end of a holiday romance in Crete, stuck between the rock of overcommitment and the hard place of potential heart-break.
You promise you’ll see each other again back home, but deep down you still can’t quite tell whether there’s any real future – whether it was all passion, waistcoats and heavy petting on the dance floor or something more substantial and genuine. Was England’s semi-final-reaching World Cup campaign a mere fortuitous, fun, summer-long fling abroad, or just the start of an incredible relationship with consistently challenging at major tournaments?
But this doesn’t need to be the end of England fans’ newly rekindled love for an underperforming national team, and this doesn’t need to be the end of the rise Gareth Southgate has inspired either. Amid all the crying face emojis and real-world tears, it’s easy to forget this is the England manager’s first attempt at a challenge none of his predecessors have conquered since 1966. It’s now a question of how he evolves this young, promising and sporadically enthralling Three Lions side, and the ruthlessness in which he does it.
After all, while England have surpassed expectations in Russia, this side is not without it’s inconsistencies and shortcomings. A few square pegs doing fantastically solid jobs in a few round holes, a handful of players being relied upon who won’t be around by the time the 2020 European Championships, let alone the next World Cup, come around.
Southgate deserves every credit for manufacturing this side in such a short space of time – his first line-up with three at the back was less than 16 months ago – but it’s still very much an early draft, a means to an end to meet the FA’s target of a World Cup quarter-final for 2018 and perhaps more significantly, generate some genuine buzz, excitement and passion amongst an increasingly disillusioned fan base.
And perhaps the biggest question mark lingers over the centre-forward, Harry Kane, who in some respects has flattered to deceive at this World Cup. He may well end it by lifting the Golden Boot, but the quality of his goals has been far from spectacular; one Ruben Loftus-Cheek shot inadvertently diverted into the net, two loose balls from set pieces pounced upon, three penalties converted – and just one goal in the knockout stages. Rather than mimicking his relentless, talismanic goalscoring performances for Tottenham, Kane’s spent most of the World Cup trying to bring those around him into play.
Of course, the suggestion isn’t to cull Kane – he’s clearly England’s most talented player – but to evolve this team in a way that exploits his netting prowess as much as his ability to hold up the ball and create for others. Perhaps that comes down to changing the personnel around him; Raheem Sterling, for all his awkward energy, just couldn’t find that incisive delivery into the Spurs star, or the deadly finish once Kane had fed him in. If Marcus Rashford can marry up his supply of goals with the game intelligence to run channels and stretch defences in the same way as Sterling, he’ll surely seem the better option in two years’ time.
There are personnel curiosities like that all over the pitch. Is Jesse Lingard really a top-level talent capable of orchestrating England’s midfield? Is Kyle Walker really the best possible fit at right centre-half, where his pace has proved vital at times but his positional mistakes have equally stood out in key moments? Are England truly getting best use from Dele Alli by deploying him in a deeper midfield role that reduces the number of opportunities in which he can sneak into the box? Can Ashley Young, an ageing wide-man playing on his weaker flank, be swapped in for a more natural left wing-back?
But perhaps too, it’s a question of formation. 3-1-4-2 has proved an impossible riddle for many of England’s World Cup opponents, but it’s felt like a dogma at times as well. Because Southgate has never really experimented with a Plan B, either prior to the tournament or during, we don’t know if Kane will be more potent in a 3-4-3, or for that matter if the midfield will be more effective in a traditional 3-5-2 setup with one creator fronting two engine room enforcers.
There’s no reason England need to stick with this formation, as effective as it’s been, purely because of the nostalgia it’s helped create at this World Cup.
Even if that isn’t the case though, the defeat to Belgium made it clear not everybody at Southgate’s disposal quite suits this system, or indeed this more technical way of playing. Phil Jones and Gary Cahill just aren’t the same breed of ball-playing centre-half, Fabian Delph is a few key qualities short of being a roaming No.8 and Rashford and Jamie Vardy offer less dimensions than Sterling and Kane, sticking to the width of the penalty area and the shoulder of the last defender. If England are to persevere with this setup, Southgate needs more players that naturally fit into it.
But there are players out there, and Southgate’s already involved some of them within his England team. As good as Lingard’s been at this World Cup, Loftus-Cheek is well on course to develop into an indisputable upgrade. Manchester City wonderkid Phil Foden has the potential to emerge as the perfect roaming No. 8 too, not least because he plays under a manager who uses the same interpretation of the loose midfield role at club level.
Ryan Sessegnon’s expected ascendance could provide England with not only the balance Young doesn’t quite provide on the left, but an added source of goals from the wing-back position too – last season he scored 16 times for Fulham is now about to test himself at Premier League level. Tottenham’s Harry Winks, Everton’s Tom Davies, Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham, amongst others, all have something to offer England as well. If they progress as expected, they’ll help forge a much stronger England squad that maintains a similar identity.
It’s now a matter of how effectively Southgate integrates them into the foundations this World Cup has laid down, but also how the players at both ends of the spectrum rise to that challenge as well. Those already in the squad, like Alli and Walker, will need to further adapt their games if they’re to maintain their places in this system or, like Sterling, fend off direct competition for roles they’re already acclimatised to – just as England’s next generation will need to prove their worthiness and their potential on the international stage.
The overarching theme though, is to improve and evolve what this World Cup has started, and to recognise that while these players in this system produced England’s greatest showing at a tournament for nearly three decades, nothing about it should be set in stone; the formation, the personnel, the departmental dynamics, must be adaptable and open to improvement. Even looking externally, four years or even two years is a long time in football’s tactical tapestry and ingenious ideas that inspired England’s performances this time around may become glaringly out of date at 2020 in Europe or 2022 in Qatar.
Sentiment can only get the Three Lions so far and in trying to improve this team Southgate must be ruthless, emotionless and clinical. In many ways, England’s unexpected progression through the tournament in Russia has made it that bit harder to dislodge key players – but Southgate showed in selecting this World Cup squad that reputations and prior glories only mean so much to him. That viciousness needs to be replicated over the course of the next few years. Tough decisions between past, present and future will need to be made.
Whether it’s a holiday romance blossoming into a long-term marriage or managing the hopes of a nation that has finally started to dream again, every relationship requires work. Rest, recuperate and reflect by all means, but the hard yards are only just beginning for Southgate. Now is the chance to truly make his mark by bringing this England team to a whole different level and for all the tears on Wednesday night, this World Cup has the potential to be just the starting point.