Under Sven-Göran Eriksson, England deserved criticism. Eriksson’s vague style of play, minimal intensity and his desperation to force a group of strong but overlapping talents into the team, leading to a one-dimensional and laboured outfit, deserved no more than the trio of quarter-finals achieved between 2002 and 2006. Gareth Southgate’s England, however, are completely different.
Southgate may not be as tactically flamboyant as Pep Guardiola or have the charisma of Jürgen Klopp and his heavy-metal football but he is exactly what England need. Southgate has built a harmonious, bold group of players who can handle pressure – a rare attribute for England teams, not just under Eriksson but across the last 60 years. Not having the time on the training pitch to input the fluid, detailed systems club managers can, Southgate instead understands the international game and approaches each encounter with a considered strategy and is adept at precisely deploying his players on a game-to-game basis.
This England side, despite being no more talented than that early noughties squad featuring Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, are the most effective incarnation of the Three Lions since 1966, both on and off the field.
The defeat to France is hugely disappointing but England set about the game with an astute game plan and dominated the World Champions for long periods. Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane repeatedly unsettled France’s weak left-side as the usually gung-ho Theo Hernández was exposed defensively at left-back while centre-back Dayot Upamecano’s lack of international experience nearly cost France. Kylian Mbappé was kept away from the goal as a result and was shut down by a well organised English right side. On the balance of play, possession and territory, England deserved to win the game more than France, who were largely abject, especially in midfield, despite creating two clear chances for Olivier Giroud in the second half.
France’s quality, as England’s might have done on another day, told in a tightly contested game between the tournament’s two strongest remaining teams. Such an early meeting at the quarter-final stage is simply a quirk of tournament football and isn’t the standard by which England should be measured. Whoever won this tie would have been expected to win the World Cup.
Outside centre-back areas, no team in Qatar can match England’s squad for quality or depth and Southgate’s charges started game with the tournament’s leading and most versatile attack (eight different players scored in Qatar) and, some Moroccan bus-parking aside, also the competition’s more secure defence.
Brazil would be the only plausible rival for either England or France. Although they too only exited as a result of cup football’s inherent entropy, Brazil’s undermanned midfield and awkward full-backs are weaknesses England don’t suffer while Tite’s team’s much-lauded attacking verve was only seen for 35 minutes against an open and out-of-their depth South Korea.
Were the World Cup a standard round-robin league, less exposed to the luck of knockout football, England would probably have triumphed. This quarter-final exit isn’t a sign of Southgate’s ineptitude or a lack of playing quality, the performance against France itself proved the opposite. Instead, it’s simply a natural product of the luck involved in a low-scoring sport and an even game that swung on a handful of moments, many not subject to the overall quality of football produced by England.
Unlike Eriksson’s team who had all the quality but no plan, no togetherness and no style, Southgate’s England, as at EURO 2020, proved that they’re a high-quality, well-balanced and astute international team with few peers. England won’t win the tournament this time but they will again leave knowing that they probably should have. Arguably, no other team can say the same.