Despite the defeat by Croatia in the semi-finals of the World Cup, England and their fans have taken more positives from the Russia 2018 then negatives.
But after the Three Lions had their limitations exposed by a decent but by no means great Croatian side, the challenge must be to get better if they are to be among the favourites for Euro 2020.
Boss Gareth Southgate has undoubtedly set England on the right path by guiding them to within a win of reaching the final, and getting to their last four of a World Cup for the time since 1990 was a considerable achievement in itself.
But as Southgate said: “We’ve got to use it as a springboard to consistently reach the latter stages of tournaments.”
There is no ignoring England’s problem with creating opportunities; they scored only four open-play goals from inside the box in Russia.
Although they scored more goals (12) than in any previous World Cup, they were over-reliant on their ability to score from set plays, and pundits have highlighted a lack of creativity, and the importance of having an impactful playmaker in midfield.
Converting more chances into goals is another issue for England. In the semi-finals, they could have been 2-0 or 3-0 up in the first half but squandered several opportunities and allowed Croatia to get back into the game.
Overcoming the Croatians to reach the final was entirely possible, but a youthful England team allowed their more experienced opponents to stay calm and work themselves into a winning position.
By the end, Southgate’s men had run out of energy and ideas – no one more so than Harry Kane who looked a shadow of the striker so feared by opponents early in the tournament.
The next steps
Southgate has grown into his role and his positive but realistic approach created an England team maturing young talents in the image of their manager.
Most pundits and observers regarded reaching the quarter-finals as a success with the young squad that was chosen, but more respect and admiration was added by reaching the final four. England as a nation fell back in love with its national team.
Of course, their group loss to Belgium offered England a more advantageous path to the later stages. The third youngest squad in Russia didn’t have the experience to take things a step further, but they will have learnt from their disappointment, and can hopefully apply those painful lessons at future tournaments.
England played well in a 3-5-2 formation, but the question moving forward is whether it can work in all situations. When Croatia began pressing and running the ball down the flanks, swinging in dangerous crosses, a switch to 4-3-3 would have helped. But it would have been a big call if not rehearsed and it is understandable that, to build confidence, Southgate has focused on specialising in one system.
However, when opponents work out how to exploit the weaknesses of your preferred system, it’s vital to have a Plan B. This is definitely a critical aspect of improving England’s young squad for the tournaments ahead.
At least, in Jordan Pickford, England seem to have found a goalkeeper who can rise to the big occasions – something they have not always been able to rely on in recent tournaments.
Pickford made his competitive debut in Russia and gained widespread respect thanks to his fine performances, as did Harry Maguire as a centre back with an unquenchable desire to get forward. Both have bright futures as essential parts of the national team.
It felt like Southgate managed to get away with making dubious changes against both Columbia and Croatia. The introduction of Eric Dier played a significant role in preventing England from keeping the ball, and during the semi-final, this impacted the team towards the end of extra-time.
Southgate has accomplished more than any other England manager in the past decade by picking players with the ability (or potential) to strengthen his preferred system.
However, there was a case for having the likes of James Milner, or another experienced player on the field, at least towards later stages of each match, encouraging the team to stay focused and keeping everyone motivated.
In the semi-final, Marcus Rashford replaced Raheem Sterling but this failed to answer to the problem of Croatia’s dominance during the second half. Should Southgate have made more use Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who has game-changing abilities as an attacking midfielder?
Southgate admitted: “There was just a period in the second half where it looked like we had the lead and didn’t want to give it away, rather than keep playing. We just lost a bit of composure in that period, and Croatia’s experience told.”
Southgate deserves credit but accepts being in front and allowing the lead to slip away, as it did against both Columbia and Croatia, is something that needs to change. It could have made the difference between being one match away from a final and actually reaching it.
Southgate joins that handful of England managers who can rightly feel they have done a good job at a major tournament.
The transformation in England’s fortunes that he brought about with a young squad made the nation proud of its team again as football fleetingly appeared to be ‘coming home’.
With key players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana hoping to return to the national set-up, Southgate’s options may be boosted ahead of Euro 2020, some of which will take place in the UK.
“We have to keep improving, and these guys will improve,” he asserted. “I think we’ve managed to get a lot from this group of players, and play in a way that highlighted some of our strengths and hid some of our weaknesses.”
England have taken significant strides towards becoming a team who work hard for each other and believe they can succeed. Winning two knockout games will have boosted their confidence, particularly the victory via a penalties against Colombia as England finally banished their World Cup shootout hoodoo.
Further improvements are needed, and some of England’s more inexperienced players need more game time for their clubs in the Premier League.
Southgate’s pool of talent is not a deep one, and England’s recent success in age-group tournaments won’t count for much if the young talents involved don’t get the chance to kick on at domestic level.
The future looks bright for England if those upcoming talents can be fully developed, and the senior team’s success in Russia will have fuelled their dreams of representing their nation.
The 2018 World Cup seemingly fired up the whole of England again after a period when successive poor tournaments had sapped the spirit and energy of supporters. Their achievements in Russia give Southgate and his young team, who made the country proud, a chance to take things to the next level.
England Three Lions photo by Keith Williamson via Flickr Creative Commons