In the immediate vortex of a World Cup exit emotions can often spiral into the hysterical.
Overwhelming disappointment lends itself to castigation that usually leads to a scapegoating of an unfortunate individual. Usually too there are calls for sweeping change as we pinpoint how England came undone and what new approach can be implemented to ensure this never happens again.
This time however – for the first time in a very long time – there has been scant playing of the blame game while calls for a ‘root and branch’ reform have only been aired ironically. Indeed this barely feels like a post mortem at all.
Instead there is a great deal of hope mixed in with the deflation as it is widely acknowledged that Gareth Southgate and his young squad are very much heading in the right direction and simply need more mileage under the hood. And from that mileage comes experience and from that experience comes invaluable knowledge in how to better navigate tournaments, overcome adversity, and in the broader sense, become a more rounded, complete footballing side.
This truth, and the largely positive and reasoned reaction to it, is encouraging in itself but there is even greater cause for optimism. Because the journey of discovery for this England squad does not start now: it has already begun and from Russia 2018 lessons will have been absorbed that will only make this side stronger as they prepare for Euro 2020 and stronger still for Qatar 2022.
This learning applies to Southgate as much as it does his players. It is difficult to overstate how successful a campaign the 47-year-old has had and in doing so he has completely reimagined his reputation while making us feel connected to our national side once again. That it’s all been done with a dignified stance is also important.
Yet for all of the significant positives – namely the forging of a unified squad through the establishment of an identity and a system that got the best out of his players – his in-game management in the Luzhniki Stadium fell painfully short.
With England in full control of their destiny his substitutions only weakened them and though it would have taken a very brave manager to withdraw Kane and a brave one to hook Alli by the hour mark: their reputation mattered far less than their ineffectualness.
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Hauling Sterling off was a mistake and it proved to be a costly one as Rashford drifted out wide thus isolating Kane who frankly looked a shadow of his usual self. In this regard it was not a resurgent Croatia who nullified England’s threat but their own manager.
In addition to this was Southgate too affixed to a system that had previously worked so well? Once Croatia got the upper hand England were over-run in midfield and were crying out for a steadying influence in the central area, an influence Lingard or Alli could not provide simply due to the types of player they are. This however would have necessitated a change to the formation and for whatever reason Southgate eschewed this option or more pertinently he failed to adapt.
In the days to come Southgate will obsess over every decision he made in Russia and its tempting to believe that such inflexibility will not occur again.
As for the players one of the biggest lessons also came courtesy of Wednesday night’s defeat. It is imperative in a major tournament – and especially against top level opponents – to press home an advantage when the opportunity is there. Ironically the very opposite used to be England’s downfall, with a proclivity to play with their hearts rather than heads and an attempt to prevail through sheer will. It was calculation and savvy that used to be beyond them.
Yet Croatia were all at sea – they were there for the taking for much of the first half – but England instead kept to their game-plan and remained patient and organised throughout, their careful build-up play welcomed by a team in relative disarray.
On the whistle, Harry Kane said games of such magnitude were decided by ‘fine margins’ and he was absolutely right in that assessment. But that doesn’t mean that these fine margins are benignly bestowed by the universe – they can be controlled and it simply cannot be under-valued to what extent this is so when teams learn when to shift through the gears and go for the throat.
Another lesson is a rather obvious one. For all of England’s impressively creative set-pieces the fact remains that they scored only three times from open play in six games. This suggests a shortfall in creating chances and it’s a concern that goes all the way back to their qualification campaign and friendlies too under Southgate’s charge.
Here though we must veer from the notion that the present squad must learn from this and instead look to the near future – to the emergence of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, and the sublime Ryan Sessegnon – because there are some tricks you can’t teach old dogs, no matter how esteemed the university. In years to come England will be abloom with creativity and difference-makers and in Foden potentially too a Modric-figure pulling the strings.
At the next World Cup these kids will shine amidst a core of players with four further years of international experience and the teachings it affords. The Three Lions will be even more assured and certainly considerably more nuanced. It’s an exciting thought.
Throughout this summer ‘Three Lions’ has belted out from drunken throats and stereo, an anthem to our hope. Perhaps now the dream is over another song should take its place, one released three years earlier. Things can only get better.