The smoke has cleared and the tepid lager forming a carbonated carpet at beer gardens across England has long since dried.
With heads held high despite crashing out of the World Cup at the semi-final stage for the first time since 1990, much is being made of all the positives surrounding this England team.
Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions are a united squad after generations of dressing-room divides moored to club rivalries. They played the ball on the ground, looked composed in possession and displayed occasional glimpses of panache in attack courtesy of a slew of dynamic footballers. These are the narratives splashed across sports pages in England a day after Southgate’s charges slumped to defeat against World Cup final first-timer Croatia – universal praise for a side that both surprised in Russia and unified fractured communities at home.
Even with a once-in-a-lifetime fortuitous draw that gifted England microscopic obstacles in Panama, Tunisia, and Sweden, the Three Lions made a good account of themselves in Russia. While the chance they were afforded in Moscow may not present itself again in a major tournament, there’s plenty of reason for optimism going forward.
England hasn’t exactly had luck with managers of late. Prior to Southgate’s appointment – a hiring spurred by the Telegraph’s undercover outing of then-Three Lions gaffer San Allardyce – the national team set-up has been laboured by ideas of tactical dinosaurs. Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello, Roy Hodgson, and Big Sam all fit that template, and major tournament displays suffered as a result.
Then Southgate stepped in, and almost immediately, the manager that once guided Middlesbrough to relegation had rallied the wagons. He said all the right things, capped emerging youngsters in qualifiers, and instituted a brand of football that inspired hope. Southgate’s risks were rewarded, with the likes of Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, and Jordan Pickford – three players handed international chances by the gaffer – all excelling in Russia.
Going forward, Southgate’s ethos is one that England can build around, and mercurial experiences from a major tournament can only help with Euro 2020 the next challenge on the calendar.
A plentiful pipeline
If this summer was one for English pride, last year’s was one for promise. England youth sides dominated major tournaments, capturing the Under-20 World Cup for the first time to go with titles at European Under-19 Championship in 2017 and the Toulon Tournament,
England’s Under-19 side also finished runner-up at the European Under-17 Championship, and bowed out of the Under-21 Euros at the semi-final stage, marking a spectacular spell for Three Lions of the future. Among the Under-20 World Cup-winning squad, the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Ademola Lookman, Lewis Cook, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin have all played meaningful first-team minutes for club. The younger lads have also displayed potential. Ryan Sessegnon, Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount, Marcus McGuane, Phil Foden, and Eddie Nketiah all have the look of stars, and like the experience gained by the senior side in Russia, the kids have all earned valuable adventure in their own forays in international competition.
A constant supply of youth can lend itself to sustained success, and it may very well buoy England’s hopes going forward.
Youthful senior side
The aforementioned litter of budding talents will face plenty of competition to get into Southgate’s set-up, a welcome dilemma sure to improve individual qualities.
England boasted the youngest squad in Russia, with the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford, John Stones, Maguire, and Pickford all 25 years old or younger. Only Ashley Young and Jamie Vardy appear to have played in their final major tournaments. Pair that with the presence of a slew of young talents who missed out on Southgate’s 23-man squad, and the future looks bright. Among those, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nathaniel Chalobah, James Tarkowski, Jamaal Lascelles, Joe Gomez, and Tammy Abraham all look the part. Southgate has given many of those on the fringes of the England team a taste of international football during the lead-up to Russia, and the fight for spots can only improve the overall quality.
After countless major tournament flops where England’s tactics and squad were popular targets for derision, the Three Lions leave Russia following Saturday’s third-place clash with Belgium renewed and reinvigorated. Doubts have transformed into confidence, scepticism swapped out for an almost incongruous and unfamiliar positivity.
There’s no reason to think it can’t last.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)