It would be hard to argue that any other country in the World Cup has played as well as England have.
The Three Lions have secured they place in the knockout stages, and they did so in mighty impressive fashion, beating Tunisia and Panama with a combined goal differential of six.
In a tournament where we’ve seen the supposed heavyweights scratched up all over Russia — Germany are out and Argentina frankly look awful despite squeezing their way in to the knockout stages — England have been the outlier.
A squad that weren’t given much of a chance to do anything by many have played with a chip on their shoulder the size of the British Isles and fostered more confidence than any of their World Cup counterparts.
Buoyancy is at a remarkable high, and it appears that it’s been lost on a strong proportion of football fans that the clubs whom were handed defeat by the English were Tunisia and Panama.
I’m not saying it isn’t a significant accomplishment to advance to the knockout stages in such strong manner. I’m not saying England’s six goals on Sunday isn’t a record breaking mark, or that Harry Kane doesn’t deserve to be discussed amongst the best strikers in the world.
But I am saying cautious optimism is the correct route here. Anything less would be unrightfully stodgy, but anything more would be inordinate.
Though we have seen England play together for a full 180 minutes thus far, much about the Three Lions remains to be determined. Like how they will handle falling behind in a game, which they have yet to face in two games. Or how they will fare against teams that bring to the table a determined and unified attack.
A lot of questions will be answered on Thursday when they take on Belgium — who have six points of their own — in a game that will decide Group G.
But let’s take a look at what England has already accomplished and how they did so. I think it’d be irreverent to break down the Three Lions’ success without starting with their captain.
What Kane has done throughout the first two games has been nothing short of amazing, and he’s been one of the true breakout stars of the World Cup. He’s already netted five goals, and his odds to be the top goal scorer have risen from 16/1 — where he was before the tournament started — to now 7/4.
The captain has made a habit of placing himself in the perfect situations at the perfect times, scoring two goals in set pieces against Tunisia and adding two more on penalties against Panama. He’s been the beneficiary of some good fortune, too.
England’s success goes past Kane, though — an obvious point as they’ve netted eight goals total. It’s evident that Gareth Southgate has found a way to get his team to perform with untity. Aside from a 30-minute stretch in the Tunisia game where there was some timid behaviour with the ball, England have maintained a confident, pushing attack — one far greater than the sum of its parts.
Kane leads all World Cup players with a Who Scored rating of 8.96, and Kieran Trippier is right there with 8.22. In all, six players — Kane, Trippier, John Stones, Jesse Lingard, Harry Maguire and Raheem Sterling — have ratings over seven. What’s most striking about the stat sheet is that almost everyone who’s played over 150 minutes has achieved a pass success percentage of at least 80. Stones, Lingard, Maguire and Kyle Walker are all over 90.
The way England’s supporting cast has played has allowed Kane the opportunities to score these goals, and that’s probably the biggest reason why so much confidence has been instilled after the first two games. Again, it’s been impressive. But if the World Cup is a marathon, England are only through the first ten kilometers. The part of the tournament they’ve already traversed will be the easiest.
Depending on what happens against Belgium and between the two Group H matches on Thursday, England will face one of Japan, Senegal or Columbia in the second round. All three are solid sides who have had their moments, but England can outclass each.
If England win and advance to the quarter-final — the stage many expected them to reach but falter at from the get go — a much better team would be waiting for them. It could be Brazil, the country heavily regarded as the most talented but who have underwhelmed thus far, of if England are lucky, it could be one of Mexico, Switzerland, Sweden or Serbia.
Unfortunately, if they win, England would find themselves on the wrong side of the bracket with the likes of Brazil, France, and Portugal. That’ll make for a gauntlet if they’re hoping to make it to the final. On the bright side, no one could argue that they will have faced inferior competition to get there.
According to Five Thirty Eight, England have a lower Soccer Power Index — or SPI, a rating based on a combination of each country’s recent match results and their overall squad — than all of those teams except Portugal, who has Cristiano Ronaldo.
One could make a logical argument for England to purposefully lose its remaining Group G game against Belgium to secure a second-place finish and an easier route through the knockout stages. But with the wave of momentum these Three Lions appear to be riding, that doesn’t seem likely as they have the look of a country with the means to take down anyone.
However, until we have a chance to see them play against a quality country, it’d be wise to remain enamoured from a distance. England have proven a whole lot this World Cup — it’s just that there is so much left.