Boy, this is going to be a rough one! Imagine a cloud of insecurity raining down infinite drops of unfiltered reality checks. That's what this post is for me. The England fan. But let's cut right to the proverbial chase, shall we? Why is nobody talking about how overrated England are?
Many around the world reading this likely don't actually even rate England. Which is fine. Do so at your own risk. I rate England, but I do think they are overrated. If that makes sense. I'm even going to take it one possibly perilous step farther - Gareth Southgate is not an elite manager.
There, I've said it. And to be completely honest with you, this is a refrain I've sang for quite some time.
Let's dive into this more though as I know this could be perceived as a controversial take. My main argument is this: England haven't won a big game since...I don't even know. I don't even actually know. Euro 2016? They beat Wales in a group match 2-1. Does that count? For me, it really doesn't, but we'll count it since if I actually put the year in this post as to when England last won a massive tie, it would be bloody depressing.
Listen, England have been pretty good. They are a supremely gifted side when it comes to qualifying. And that's essentially because they get to play San Marino quite often. But, friendlies aside, when was the last time England beat anybody? The World Cup in 2014 was a joke. Uruguay and Italy torched England. They got bounced from the Euros in 2016 by Iceland. And then 2018 distorted the picture.
The Russia World Cup in 2018 on paper looked a success for England. They made it to the semis. And as a lifelong England fan, I was excited. It was the furthest I had seen England go since the most beautiful of teams in 1990 (a team and a tournament that would shape kids my age in how they would play and how they would always temper their international expectations as a fan). But, nothing really happened. When called upon to beat someone, England succumbed. They were given a favorable group and the only team of note they faced, Belgium, they lost to. They beat a good Colombia on penalties. And then defeated a Sweden team incredibly inferior to them to reach the semi-finals. What happened when they played a top team in Croatia to advance to their first final since 1966? They largely got handled. And even then with an opportunity to finish 3rd, they lost to Belgium once again. All in all, a pretty average tournament for a country expected to have more World Cup trophies than the solitary one in the cabinet.
But, nobody could argue that Gareth Southgate was the man to lead the charge. He can only play the teams he encounters, so he rode the wave of generous results and brackets in Russia to a semi-final berth. And that is enough to certainly keep your job. But, the performances and the ability to transcend to the next level were lacking. England should have beaten Croatia. They scored first and early thanks to Kieran Trippier. But Mario Mandžukić in extra time killed the dream. Had England progressed, they would have been colossal underdogs to a rampant France side. Which is sort of my point. They would have been in a final and almost everybody would back their opponent.
I'll give Southgate credit in that the players seem to like playing for him. That is definitely not nothing. And he seems settled on a system and the people he wants implementing that style (sorry, Chris Smalling who apparently isn't good enough with the ball at his feet and Aaron Wan-Bissaka who apparently isn't good enough at covering weak-side crosses). So, he's doing something. But that's not elite. When a country as good as or better than England has ever come his way, England have been bested. And that falls on the players, yes, but much of it lands on the manager in the end.
Post-World Cup, Southgate and co. carried on and England had their first bit of true triumph in the UEFA Nations League. I won't go into depth as to what the Nations League is or why it exists (TL;DR - friendlies but set up in a tournament-like fashion to make said useless but lucrative friendlies more worth watching), but all the major European countries tried their utmost to win. Pride, at the very least, was at stake. And England did well. They defeated a decent Switzerland 1-0, a subpar Spain 3-2 (having lost to them one month earlier) and then avenged their semi-final loss by beating Croatia 2-1. Those results were enough for England to make it to the final four of the Nations League! And do you know what happened next? Anybody? The Netherlands came through and smashed the Three Lions 3-1 when something major was on the line (Portugal would go on to beat the Dutch in the final). England did beat Switzerland to finish third, but even then in a wildly stale emotionless contest, needed extra time and penalties (with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford asked to kick one). So, again, kind of...meh.
And big teams win pots. If, that is, you want to be taken seriously (ask the current crop of Belgium players and fans). Look at Portugal. They never won anything, not even with their Golden Generation with the likes of Luís Figo, Deco, Rui Costa et al. But, with Cristiano Ronaldo in tow, they went to the finals of Euro 2004, which they laughably lost to Greece, and then won Euro 2016 and the aforementioned Nations League. The Dutch have had a similar fate to England, but have at least won a Euros, albeit in 1988.
But, the Dutch aren't getting global press coverage and aren't celebrating a semi-final berth in a World Cup. Their manager isn't being feted as some sort of liberator. England are. Southgate is. So, the level of scrutiny deserves to be more intense.
This argument and issue is more pronounced now as England have bred a host of starlets currently budding up. It is legitimately enthralling and promising. The youth setup has produced winners on the international stage. England's U17, U19 and U20 teams all won either the World Cup (U17, U20) or a European trophy (U19, U20) within the last few years. And if they aren't winning trophies, they are making deep and meaningful runs (including the U21 squad). A number of those players are now stars. A number of those players are ready to shine at the senior level.
England's recent Golden Generation did not win anything. The years-long debate about whether or not Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard could excel together in a midfield has been over for quite some time now. Thankfully. It was boring. This new batch has similar expectations beginning to weigh heavy on the shoulders after seeing so many soar for their domestic teams. Phil Foden (20 years old), Jadon Sancho (21) and Mason Mount (22) are almost certain to feature this summer. Mason Greenwood (19) has the ability to do so. Tammy Abraham (23) was in line as well, but has fallen down the pecking order at Chelsea with Thomas Tuchel now at the helm. There are others - Harvey Barnes (23), Reece James (21), Callum Hudson-Odoi (20), Emile Smith Rowe (20), Tariq Lamptey (20) and Bukayo Saka (19) all absurdly talented. Jude Bellingham (17) may find Euro 21 comes too soon for him to be called up, but he is destined for proper greatness. People forget Marcus Rashford (23), Declan Rice (22) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (22) are regulars, despite their relatively young age. That is top quality right there. And you add that in with the experience already sprinkled amidst the roster with the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier, and that is a genuine threat on the global stage.
So, maybe the 2018 World Cup came too soon for Southgate. Maybe the same can be said about the Nations League. Maybe. But now, with these players in form and having a bonus year to hone their chops at the highest level, there are no more excuses to be had. England must win and win now. This team should be dominant for the next decade based solely on the footballers I've listed above plus the ones about to hit their prime like Kalvin Phillips, James Maddison, Ollie Watkins, Luke Shaw and Jack Grealish. This is a bunch of ballers who have the ability to thrive and disrupt the podium scene.
The question is will they? Because England generally never have. There's always the potential. There's always the megastar who becomes the new savior and revives dusty hopes, be it Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney or Harry Kane. But that hope quickly fades when the floodlights hit and a gigantic match needs to be won. Kane, to emphasize my point, was not all that effective during the Russia World Cup. Sure, he scored twice against Tunisia and had a hat trick versus Panama (2 penalties). He slotted in another penalty against Colombia in the quarter-finals. So, he had an effect, but he will be needed to alter games every single time out if England want to do anything. He is the captain and he cannot just bulge the net against lowly countries and from the spot. He needs to use his talent on the ball and create. Things he has in his locker and has displayed this season especially as he drops deeper occasionally for Tottenham. He needs to score against the big teams in big games and carry the squad if need be. It sounds like a hefty ask but this is what Southgate and this team have the capability to do. That, by the way, is their ambition. To be the best.
England are ranked 4th in the world (#LOL I have never understood football rankings and they are almost always lavishly off the mark) and Southgate will be telling his players that they can win the Euros. Well, let's see it then. If he is the man who the press and pundits have made him out to be, let us see it in action. Because up until now, I have not. And I am not, frankly, convinced. What I have seen is periodic glimpses of a team that can truly glitter. I've seen England win friendlies and cruise through qualifications. But when the stakes reach the next echelon, I've seen England stutter and inevitably stumble. And now you're telling me things have changed and progress has been made. So, I need to see it. 2018 was good and it was fun, but we English knew we weren't actually going to win the cup. And that can't be. For once, let's see England actually reach their potential. Fulfill the hype and bring football all the way home.
And if not, splendid, let's just carry on as is. But don't tell me things are different.
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