World Cup

Are England actually good now? A biased Welshman exhaustively inspects the evidence

A back-and-forth, one-man debate to establish how good the English team really are

You’re here for one of two reasons.

One: You’re an England fan. You want this article to tell you to get the plastic chainmail out because England are actually good now, they’re going to win the World Cup and you’re going to get arrested for scaling Nelson’s Column and dousing the Queen in lukewarm lager.

Two: You’re not English. You want this article to tell you that they’re absolute toot, that they’ve fluked their way through and you only have to endure one more week of interminable Baddiel and Skinner singalongs before their hopes get dashed and their Brave Boys come home in disgrace, having failed to secure ‘football’ once again.

Now, ID cards on the table: I am not English, I am Welsh. Ideally then, I’d be able to write something that amounts to telling you all that England are terrible, that Gareth Southgate’s a total charlatan and his team will get dumped out in such a humiliating fashion that the St George’s cross will forevermore elicit an unbearable Pavlovian response of searing shame.

Sadly though, I’m actually not sure whether England are crap anymore. Of course, I might just be saying this to get all your hopes up, to make it all the more satisfying when they get dashed to pieces. But then again, I also might be saying it to save face if you do win the whole thing. I also might be saying it because I secretly want them to do well, on account of being English through parentage and performatively anti-English for clicks. But primarily, I’m a journalist with an unquenchable thirst for the truth. Drink up guys, because this round - a confusing back-and-forth argument with myself - is on me.

They’re in the Semi-Finals of a World Cup

Are England actually good at football now? 2

It’s quite hard to argue that England aren’t in the semi-finals of a World Cup, because they are. By various processes of qualification and elimination, England have got down to the final four of the 191 nations recognised by FIFA, which means they’re in the top 2.09% of teams in global football. That’s before the very real possibility they might reach the final (which would put them in the top 1.05%) and then win it (0.52%). Even if you might furiously maintain that England aren’t good, then they’re still less bad than 97.91% of other teams.

England are good: 1
England are just lucky: 0

They’ve been lucky with draws

As early as the qualification groups, England have got lucky. These groups are drawn according to seeding - so a top seed will be drawn with nations that are, theoretically, worse than them, according to FIFA’s rankings. Every time a nation appears at a World Cup, their ranking improves, and therefore the easier their teams in their qualification group become. England always qualify so they will always be drawn in groups they can easily qualify from.

England’s group was a gift: Tunisia had previously won only one game at the finals (though they collected a second victory against Panama this time around), while Panama had never qualified before. England’s only real test in the group stage was Belgium, who beat them.

Through to the knockout stages and Colombia were inarguably a decent side, but also a nation that’s only ever got to three knockout stages, and won in only one of those. Then Sweden in the quarters, who hadn’t qualified for a World Cup in 12 years. Objectively speaking, it would’ve been a far bigger upset had either Colombia or Sweden progressed. England will face Croatia in the semi-finals, a team who have only once before progressed beyond the group stage (although they did get to the semis in 1998.)

A group containing England, Colombia, Sweden and Croatia would probably just about constitute a ‘group of death’ if they’d drawn together before latter stages. Fortunate bureaucracy is carrying England to the final. 

England are good: 1
England are just lucky: 1

They smashed Panama

Are England actually good at football now? 5

Regardless of previous form, beating any nation 6-1 at a World Cup finals is nothing to sniff at and this was England’s biggest ever World Cup victory. The last time that they scored more than three goals in a World Cup game, they beat West Germany 4-2 in the 1966 final. Only Russia’s 5-0 decimation of Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the tournament equals England’s in terms of victory margins. 

This is impressive, sure, but when do England ever beat anyone when it matters? The scoreline didn’t flatter them, they dismantled the Panamanians like a jock mercilessly ripping on a nerd while everyone gather around and jeered them on, refusing to relent until Panama lashed out and conceded a reckless penalty. Panama weren’t the best team in the competition, but historically it usually follows that the smaller the minnows that England face, the greater the chance they have of ruining England’s hopes (See Iceland during Euro 2016). By crushing Panama into dust, England ended one of their most persistent tournament hoodoos.

England are good: 2
England are just lucky: 1

Panama are crap

They are though.

England are good: 2
England are just lucky: 2

Panama did beat USA to qualify though…

If I wanted to get into a long protracted argument with the sections of r/soccer that believe the MLS is a Mecca for the beautiful game, and not a Premier League graveyard where Wayne Rooney’s gone to have a nice pre-retirement, then I’d suggest that this isn’t necessarily the greatest of achievements. But I don’t, so I will concede the USMNT have been World Cup mainstays since 1990 and always performed far above expectation, so Panama must be decent enough, tbf, like. And England smashed them.

England are good: 3
England are just lucky: 2

They nearly didn’t beat Tunisia

Are England actually good at football now? 7

This was a textbook England-at-a-tournament performance. A furious opening twenty minutes, England take the lead, and then concede a clumsy equaliser that deflated all their momentum. Until the very last minute of the game, it was largely aimless, guileless punting, and it really did seem like they were headed for a draw that would have the knock-on effect of demotivating the entire squad and getting the national press on their back. If they hadn’t won here, their route to the final would have been far less comfortable, and there’s an argument their performance against Panama would be far less assured.

England are good: 3
England are just lucky: 3

They did beat Tunisia, though

Who cares if it wasn’t as comfortable as they’d like? They won. In the last-minute. That’s the sort of rousing end that’s almost better than a competent never-in-doubt 1-0 win. When you realise you’ve got it in you to stop the plucky underdogs getting ideas above their station, you can go straight into the next game knowing you don’t owe Panama a single ounce of respect. You’ve survived the scare and snatched national jubilation from the jaws of humiliation.

England are good: 4
England are just lucky: 3

They bottled the Belgium game

Are England actually good at football now? 8

England rested virtually their entire squad and lost in typically lacklustre England fashion to a Belgium B-team. I get why they did it - winning would have given them the harder bracket of the knockout draw, and there was no reason to risk Harry Kane’s precious limbs in a game where both sides were qualified - but it was small time behaviour. If they’d fielded a full strength XI and ground Belgium into such a fine paste that they’d have to be identified by their dental records, it would’ve been an amazing display of strength. One of England’s problems in tournaments past is that they show the big boys too much respect. Arguably, England played not to lose, whereas their opponents at those tournaments - Italy, Germany, Portugal (and even, arguably, Iceland) - all played to win. By showing a ruthless streak in this game, they’d have put the frighteners right up everyone.

England are good: 4
England are just lucky: 4

Their gamble paid off

Even if it was small-time and diabolical to watch, it worked. England are where they haven’t been for 28 years: in a semi-final. You can only beat the teams that are put in front of you, although as England have proved, it’s possible to choose those teams, and then beat them. They’ve played a blinder.

Semi-finals are for getting wildly carried away with What Might Be, and revelling in getting there. Not for reflecting on whether you could have done it in a more testing fashion. 

England are good: 5
England are just lucky: 4

They don’t look good in open play

Only three of England’s 11 goal haul so far have come from open play, and one of them was a ridiculously fortuitous deflection off Kane’s heel against Panama. 

Watching this England side is strange. They don’t look unduly worried at the back, but they don’t look particularly intimidating going forward. Despite almost certainly being a shoe-in for the Golden Boot, Harry Kane drops a lot deeper in Southgate’s side than as Tottenham’s talisman, and he’s less of a danger for it. They could easily play really cavalier attacking football, but there’s something missing in their build-up play.

There’s no doubt about it: England are overly reliant on set-pieces, and that’s bad news if they face a team who have a rudimentary understanding of marking corners, and not falling foul of VAR.

England are good: 5
England are just lucky: 5

They’re really good at set-pieces

Are England actually good at football now? 9

While a club side that plays for set-pieces might be found out and undone over the course of a season, an international one only needs to get through seven games where nobody has the time to learn how to deal with them.

Go to any changing room in England of a Saturday afternoon, in every league from Premier to pub, and you’ll witness a red-faced manager standing in front of his charges and extolling the virtues of lofting balls into the mixer because it makes the keeper work. No tiki-taka, no gegenpress, just pure mixerball and this England team have laid new blueprints for how generations of youngsters will be getting up to the big man. 

Southgate’s version of mixerball isn’t hit-and-hope. It’s studied and savvy. You might have noticed England’s players lining up for corners as if queueing for self-service checkouts, and then bursting in every which direction, pulling their markers away from where their ball will land. This is nothing new but the English team have been pulling it off with military precision and it is absolutely deserving of praise.

England are good: 6
England are just lucky: 5

They won an actual penalty shoot-out 

They won their first World Cup shoot-out ever, and only their second in 9 attempts across all tournaments. That’s another hoodoo they’ve broken. And it wasn’t mere luck. While every other England manager has made a baffling point of playing penalties as a lottery, Southgate made the unprecedented decision to learn which of his squad could take them. And some of them really can take them.

Harry Kane blasts penalties into unreachable corners like he’s idly throwing balls of paper into a bin. There’s no fancy panenka stuff, no attempts to psychologically outfox the keeper with a stuttering run up, no clever business. He just looks at the top corner, sets his internal power meter to 100 and lets rip. It’s mechanical, like he doesn’t understand how to miss. Marcus Rashford and Tripper are very decent, takers, too. Jordan Henderson not so much, but it doesn’t matter, England have a penalty system and it works.

England are good: 7
England are just lucky: 5

They won a penalty shootout against David Ospina

If you put ‘david ospina height’ into Google, it says “1.83m”, which is 6 foot, which I refuse to believe, because that’s quite tall. David Ospina is the shortest man I’ve ever seen, and I say this as a long-suffering short man, and an Arsenal fan. I know a short man when I see them, and when I see David Ospina in between his sticks, it’s like looking at a Borrower lurking behind a cereal box. Inexplicably, he managed to save Henderson’s attempt, but the difference told in the end. He guessed right for every single one of England’s penalties, and yet could only reach one. The way Eric Dier’s winner squeezed under his tiny palm was reminiscent of a child trying to reach a shelf in a supermarket and only being able to agonisingly tickle the Mars Bars.

England are good: 7
England are just lucky: 6

Jordan Pickford is a small keeper, too 

Are England actually good at football now?

Against my better judgement, I have accidentally found myself massively endeared to an England player. I love Jordan Pickford. I can’t help it. It’s my sincere belief that Jordan Pickford’s 2012 Twitter game is possibly the strongest run of Tweets all time. This was a man who had absolutely no idea that he would become England’s first choice goalkeeper, let alone one at a World Cup they might actually win. I love him. Yet he’s only 1.85m (again, according to Google), which is only 2cms taller than Ospina. 

This revelation has shocked me to my core, because this makes him a short man (as Thibaut Cortois has made a point of noticing.) And yet, he’s been brilliant. He made one of the saves of the tournament against Colombia, and then three more against Sweden. The England number one shirt is normally a poisoned chalice, a giant whoopee cushion you have to wear on your back that saps your ability to use your arms, and Jordan Pickford has bucked the trend. He saved a penalty, for chrissakes. I want England to lose, so I hate him for this, but I also love him, too.

England are good: 8
England are just lucky: 6

They’ve been lucky with decisions

This is where my non-English bias has the biggest influence, but I think it’s true. VAR decisions have been favourable for England. The Colombians agree. While the English media decried their opponents as dirty cheats, the Colombians felt exactly the same in reverse.

Though this will boil the piss of every St George’s cross painted face in England, your boys have undoubtedly been playing for VAR decisions, intertwining themselves with their markers during set-pieces and going down far easier than ever before.

If you watch the Colombia incident again, Harry Kane makes a point of wrapping himself around Carlos Sanchez, then pushes himself off the defender, then trips over his own feet and pulls the defender on top of him. Sanchez doesn’t do himself any favours with by clumsily falling for it and with a daft jump that means he lands standing over for him, but it’s certainly gamesmanship.

England are good: 8
England are just lucky: 7

Gamesmanship… is good

Are England actually good at football now? 10

Southgate has as good as admitted that England players are not being encouraged to stay on their feet if they could draw a foul.

It’s dubious to suggest that English players are averse to diving, but his words do hint at an altogether cannier mentality. Pundits have been coyly referring to England as ‘streetwise’, which is, of course, cheating by any other name. And it’s annoyingly good.

The penalty committed against Harry Kane above is a penalty. Regardless of whether he played for it, he won it, VAR confirmed it, and then he converted it. It worked.

Before VAR, the number of penalties awarded for ‘manhandling’ and ‘shirt-pulling’ during set-pieces was virtually zero. This meant attackers would not go down even if they were being dragged to the floor. Defenders have spent their careers thinking they could prevent set-pieces with various ‘dark arts’. Now the tables have been turned and they have no idea what to do.

If teams know that England are playing for these sort of fouls, they’re going to be a lot more tentative in their marking. But they also know that England are good at set pieces. If they don’t mark the England players tightly, they’re likely to concede, and if they do, they might give away a penalty. It’s a catch-22 that England have been taking full advantage of. It’s clever, and it’s good. 

England are good: 9 (begrudgingly)
England are just lucky: 7

Gareth Southgate’s managerial experience

Gareth Southgate previously managed Middlesbrough to a couple of respectable mid-table finishes, and then got them relegated. Later he managed the England under-21s to a last place finish in the group stages of the 2015 Euro U21s. It’s not a glittering record by any stretch, the sort that probably would probably get your CV chucked in the bin by a recruiter if there were any other applicants. But there weren’t, really.

After Sam Allardyce’s unceremonious sacking, Southgate was given the caretaker role. He got the job permanently after beating international whipping boys Malta 2-0 at Wembley, playing out a goalless stalemate with Slovenia, beating Scotland and then scraping a 2-2 draw against Spain in a friendly. Sure, it’s an unbeaten record, but there can’t have been many other candidates available if the FA plumped for him.

If England meet Belgium again, the World Cup Final will be contested between Gareth Southgate and Roberto Martinez, two managers who could quite feasibly have been contesting a relegation six pointer in the Championship 2 years ago. That’s wild, and is perhaps indicative that the standard of international management is… not great.

England are good: 9 
England are just lucky: 8

Are England actually good at football now? 3

Gareth Southgate is actually a waistcoat legend

Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello were both absurdly decorated club managers who made England look like 2008-09 Middlesbrough. Gareth Southgate might be a fortuitous hire, but he’s making England look like the sort of side that could win Serie A at a canter. He’s also a legend.

Gareth Southgate starred in an advert for Pizza Hut with a paper bag on his head after missing a penalty in Euro 96, and twenty years later he’s gone and overseen England’s first ever World Cup penalty shootout victory.

He looks like a mannequin that’s walked out of the menswear section of M&S, but he’s on course to win the World Cup with England. You just know they’re going to erect statues about this.

Yes, Gareth Southgate might be simperingly polite Eeyore figure who was lucky to get the job in the first places, and one who dresses like he’s a last-minute extra in an ITV2 Agatha Christie drama, but he’s also, and it brings me no pleasure to say this: a legend.

England are good: 10
England are just lucky: 8

They seem like good lads

Infuriatingly, these damn brave lions seem alright.

Previous England squads were full of dour-faced stars, guaranteed Golden Generation starters who all seem to hate each other, and hate playing with one another, and hated playing for England. (Arguable exception: David Beckham.) This bunch are weirdly close to being an actual team.

A team that like playing football and appear to exclusively spend their downtime going bowling, playing Fortnite and learning the various celebratory dance moves. It’s like they’re on a school trip, It’s almost too wholesome. Disgusting.

*England are good: 10
England are just lucky: 8

No points for either ‘luck’ or ‘good’ but it is quite lovely to see

International football is crap now

Are England actually good at football now? 6

As a Welshman - this one pains me. It’s not that England are good all of a sudden, it’s that no one else is.

Italy didn’t qualify, likewise Netherlands. Germany were abysmal. Argentina scraped through and were no match for France. Portugal only had Cristiano Ronaldo’s quality. Spain sacked their manager a day before the tournament. Brazil were bang average. These are the big guns, and they’re misfiring.

The signs were there: Wales got to the semi-finals of Euro 2016. It’s something I will cherish forever, but it shouldn’t have happened, because we’d qualified for one major international tournament before, ever, in 1958. And then Portugal won the whole thing, and they were crap (beyond Ronaldo). That shouldn’t have happened.

Over the last few decades, there have been manifold more talented England sides than this one on paper, only the standard of quality at these points was much higher in international football. 

They haven’t got better, everyone else has got worse.

England are good: 10
England are just lucky: 9

England are the best crap team in world football

What is World Cup football, when it comes down to it? It’s a month where 32 nations frantically scramble with opponents from every corner of the globe. It’s seven games separating 23 players from eternal glory.

Are this England side facing the Brazil of 1970, or France of 1998, or West Germany of 1974, or Spain of 2010? No, they’re playing the Tunisia, Panama, Belgium, Colombia, Sweden, Croatia (and maybe France or Belgium, again) of 2018. Who actually cares whether this England side compare with those that came before? Tedious footy bores, that’s who. Who will care if England, win the whole thing and finally bring football home? Probably the entire country, mate.

“But what if Croatia, or France and Belgium beat them?” Trouble is, none of those are as good at being crap as England. England have been crap for over half a century. They are the masters of being crap, they’re seasoned veterans.

All four semi-finalists have the potential for something to make them really crap, but England are absolutely the best-equipped to deal with it by pure virtue of everyone expecting it all go wrong. And now they know they can eke out last-minute winners, that they can edge it if it goes to penalties, and that their keeper isn’t liable to drop the traditional clanger anymore. Psychologically they’re in a prime position - accepting of failure, but with fire burning in their belly.

FINAL SCORE

England are good: 11
England are just lucky: 9

Unfortunately, I have to conclude that even if England aren’t actually good, then they’re still going to win the World Cup. And if I have to watch Jordan Pickford loft that trophy above his lovely sweet head, then I will turn to the person next to me and announce “that’s my boy.” I love you, Picky. 

(Images: Getty)

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