England are disappointed, but this time it’s a different kind of disappointment

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By Evan Morgan Grahame, Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    England's Danny Welbeck and Harry Kane applaud supporters. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

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    And so, like a gap-year British student buying a winning scratchcard from a Majorcan newsagent, football won’t be coming home this week after all. 

    Having scored first, controlled the opening hour of the match, and taking things to extra time, Gareth Southgate’s band of bright-faced national herolets, slipped, ooer’d, and lost their grip on the 2018 World Cup final.

    Thoughts of a delicious trans-channel match-up in the ultimate game were dashed, as Mario Mandžukić punished a fleeting moment of defensive carelessness, heaving a half-keeled – the pneumatic Ivan Perišić excepted – Croatian team over the line. 

    Croatia were the better team, and finished the game with – amazingly, considering the amount of minutes they’ve logged in the knockout stages so far – more vigour, and with markedly more composure and poise. As England resorted back to old long-punt habits, and Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić kept shifting the ball calmly from side to side, the outcome was all but assured even before they’d scored the winner.

    Luka Modric

    (PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images)

     

    One would think, having not made the World Cup semi-final stage for 28 years, that the English disappointment would be even more severe than usual; the numb dread of a Round of 16 exit, so often at the hands of lesser team, has been such a habitually suffered trauma that it barely registers on the scales of a people who, at times, seem to welcome the cathartic blood-letting of footballing failure.

    But it doesn’t feel worse, and it’s because – despite the initial arrogant, entitled impression the whole Football’s Coming Home meme gives – the English weren’t actually casting out and reeling in, dad-on-the-dancefloor-style, football’s biggest honour as if they’d already landed the whopper.

    There are levels of irony to all that the singing and affected confidence that only the English can detect and appreciate. In fact, they were grateful and happy to have made the semi-final, seem to have a genuine affection for their young team, and are totally aware of their fortunate path through the group and knockout stages.

    They didn’t think they had the final in hand, and so don’t mourn the loss of it. They can see the positives in a campaign that ultimately ended up falling short of the prize.

    Almost every English team since Italia ’90 has under-performed at the big tourney, burping up a slightly sickening product that’s hit a mark some distance below the level they might have reached. From the Iceland debacle of the last Euros to the varied penalty shoot-out implosions of the last 20 years, it’s been the the the extrinsic narratives that have left the sourest taste and caused the sourest face, not the result itself. 

    Not least, to name one wrinkle conspicuously absent from England’s Russia campaign, the issue of team dysfunction; Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard or Paul Scholes? Where – or if – to play Wayne Rooney? Will the manager play that one rather un-English English midfielder, whose absence we can surely blame the fact we can’t keep the ball on?

    Who’ll be captain, that leadership position that few other countries seem to focus on as intently and ascribe as much intolerable importance as England do? They just weren’t here this tournament, for some reason.

    England fans celebrating in the stands at the World Cup.

    (Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire)

    And it’s not as though there weren’t things to gripe about. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a less established but more talented two-way midfielder than Jordan Henderson, should have got more knock-out round minutes. The three-at-the-back system, with a converted Kyle Walker, could easily have been a point of poisonous tactical argument – of course, the fact it was largely successful helped quell that.

    English people can always find something to moan about if they feel like a moan.

    The fact this team is so young has also provided a hopeful aftertaste; England have the equal-second-youngest squad (26 years old) in the tournament, tied with France and behind Nigeria. They only have three players over 30 in the squad, and only one of those, Ashley Young, is a starter.

    Who were England’s best performers this tournament? Well, Jordan Pickford is 24, Raheem Sterling is 23, and John Stones is 24 – Kieran Trippier is a relative veteran at 27. Many of the current crop will, in theory, be better, more rounded players for the next Euros, and the World Cup in Qatar.

    They weren’t supposed to do anything other than try hard, develop a little, and not embarrass themselves in Russia. That they won a penalty shoot-out and made the final four isn’t just encouraging, it has sent a warm anaesthetic comfort across the country and helped stitch together a nation doing everything it can to tear itself limb from limb.

    Southgate is the other factor. He has stewarded, with dignity and composure, this diverse, likeable team, has made some bold tactical gestures, and has gone some way to bringing back the Marks and Spencer waistcoat. He’s English too, a beaky, pale, slight and slightly princely Englishman – the last three English England managers have been, to violently varying degrees of permanence, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson and Steve McClaren.

    (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

    McClaren failed to qualify for Euro 2008, Hodgson was out-tactic’d by a part-time dentist in Euro 2016, and Sam Allardyce’s most memorable act as England manager was to be filmed ordering a pint of wine. English people like Southgate, and he’s done a great job at the World Cup.

    That’s more than you can probably say about the last 20 years of national team gaffers.

    It would be needless giddy positivity not to mention how fortunate England’s run to the semis was. One could also point out that it’s not exactly great that they scored a third of their goals from set pieces or penalties – hang your hat on being able to execute a nice set piece routine, sure, but emphasising deep free kicks or corners as the main source of offensive potency and celebrating accordingly when you win them – isn’t really the sign of a team with a enviable attacking scheme.

    Southgate has more to do, more to tweak, and more to improve, but he seems well-equipped and – crucially – well-supported enough to do it.

    A third-place finish would be England’s best result in a major tournament since the 1968 Euros and would add an extra sweetener to all of this. Plenty of England fans will now embrace their inner Croatian, as opposed to donning the dreaded beret.

    There will be a tinge of regret about that extra time period against Croatia, to be sure, and if the national team slip back into wallowing catastrophe in time for the next major tourney, it will throb painfully in history as a badly missed opportunity.

    So, yes, England are out, as we expected them to be at this stage, but, no, they aren’t down.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.

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    The Crowd Says (41)

    • July 14th 2018 @ 9:30am
      Fadida said | July 14th 2018 @ 9:30am | ! Report

      I’m not sure that they’d “often lose to lesser teams”.

      Argentina 98, Brazil 02, Portugal 06, Germany 10, failed to finish above Italy and Uruguay in 14, Croatia 18.

      The problem has been that they generally lose to the very first side of equal or greater ability that they meet. Argentina 02(?) was the only exception I remember.

      The only difference this time was that they didn’t face a good side until the semis, thanks to a perfect storm. They ended up beating an average Tunisia,a hopeles Panama and a very uninspiring Sweden. They drew with Colombia (minus their star), prevailing on penalties, and lost to Belgium and Croatia.

      There may be a younger feel to the squad but there is a definite lack of technical quality, and it’s too late for this group to acquire it. I’ve never seen a weaker English squad at a WC.

      It’ll be interesting to see if any of their under age winning sides can break into EPL first teams, becaue unless they can it’ll be back to second round and quarter final exits against the first good side they meet.

      • July 14th 2018 @ 10:18am
        Redondo said | July 14th 2018 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        All true.

      • July 14th 2018 @ 11:25am
        chris said | July 14th 2018 @ 11:25am | ! Report

        Fad you touched on the technical qualities that this England team (and for me, all of the England teams) lacks.
        Why do you think that is? I’ve asked this before and am still yet to get a valid response. Why do teams like Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium etc have this ability to make the ball flow through the lines effortlessly whilst teams like England (and Germany) make it look clunky? Australia falls into the same category as England and Germany. Japan on the other hand look to have mastered this technique. The ball flows like its on a running river as opposed to hitting a wall and being redirected.
        It can’t just be because of street football as there would be just as many English kids playing in the streets as there are Spanish, French and Italians.

        • July 14th 2018 @ 11:42am
          Vennegor of Tarsus said | July 14th 2018 @ 11:42am | ! Report

          It’s discipline

        • July 14th 2018 @ 12:28pm
          dsed said | July 14th 2018 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

          Roman genetics, my friend. Roman bloodline.

          South Americans, Italians, Spaniards, Portugese are all of Roman bloodline. The French are mixed Roman-Germanic, the Belgiums have Roman in them, so do a few East European nations, for example Ex-Yugoslavians. If you study history, you find, Romans have conquered more nations than any other bloodline.

          And wherever they left behind most of their seed, you find the most technical Footballers. Even among Germans, Australians, North Americans etc. you find that the most technical players usually have Roman blood mixed in them.

          I repeat: It’s all about ROMAN GENES.

          • July 14th 2018 @ 1:50pm
            Redondo said | July 14th 2018 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

            Roman Britain stretched for 4 centuries. Unless the Romans were remarkably selective breeders your theory has a huge hole in it.

          • July 14th 2018 @ 7:10pm
            Tirateg said | July 14th 2018 @ 7:10pm | ! Report

            Bizarre comments, the Romans were a ruling class that colonised but had little to do with the indigenous populations. The French if anything are Gauls who had there Celtic language, culture and religious beliefs destroyed by the roman invaders much the same as the modern day English had their Celtic heritage destroyed by the Saxons. The French are not Latin rather they were latinised much the same as the English are not Anglo Saxons but were Germanised by the invaders who seized their chance when the Romans left Britain. There is no such thing as a Roman bloodline, we are layer upon layer of migrations that have been happening for millennia.

        • July 14th 2018 @ 12:29pm
          Vennegor of Tarsus said | July 14th 2018 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

          I played a junior football match in Italy and it was incredible the passing game they had. The ball would get passed from angles i had never before seen done. The problem coaching a team to play a good passing game comes down to discipline unfortunately in Australia kids aren’t coached correctly or they have parents who tell their kids not to pass the ball, it all comes down to culture a lot of it. England traditionally have had pitches that get muddy in the winter so that’s tended to favour a long ball game however now all the top two divisions have pitch heating and are kept in better knick so i think the short passing game is starting to improve. If you don’t have discipline at any football level then you won’t have a good passing game, top teams control the tempo of the game because teamwork is ingrained in their footballing brain.

        • July 14th 2018 @ 1:05pm
          Redondo said | July 14th 2018 @ 1:05pm | ! Report

          I think it starts with culture and becomes self-fulfilling.

          Think of England teams over the last few generations. Dynamic footballers dominate over technical footballers…

          60-70s: Brooking half as many caps as Bobby Charlton
          80s: Hoddle half as many caps as Robson
          00s: Scholes half as many caps as Lampard and Gerrard.

          They are all excellent footballers but there is an obvious bias towards heroic physicality over hard-learned technique. The bias becomes self-fulfilling because technicians are less effective than heroes when surrounded by teammates with average technical skills. Heroes have great moments and the technicians lose out.

          I think our National Curriculum might well produce a similar phenomenon. It focusses almost exclusively on team-based skills acquisition, while mostly ignoring individual learning.

          It’s depressing watching junior training sessions where kids who can’t control the ball or pass straight try to learn both skills by passing to each other. It’s kind of pointless and leads to constant breakdowns and frustration all-round. It’s even worse when one kid actually has good skills but can’t rely on his training partners to cooperate.

          I suspect nations produce skilled footballers when their kids do a lot of lonely skill development – passing the ball to a wall, dodging cones, sprinting with the ball. They come to teams with good skills and then integrate their skills into a team setting.

          Stories about players like Cantona, Ronaldo, Messi etc all emphasise their devotion to hours of individual skill practice, even as adults.

          • July 16th 2018 @ 3:12pm
            JimmyB said | July 16th 2018 @ 3:12pm | ! Report

            Some rather bizarre comparisons there. Brooking and Charlton were different generations of player, Scholes retired from international football well before he was finished playing at the top level and if you think that Charlton, Robson or Gerrard aren’t technically gifted players then there’s no hope for you.

            • July 16th 2018 @ 3:24pm
              Redondo said | July 16th 2018 @ 3:24pm | ! Report

              Charlton and Brooking had overlapping careers. It was just a rough comparison.

              Scholes gave up on England because he was marginalised in favour of Lampard and Gerrard. He would have been a central figure for many more years for a non-English national team.

              As I said, Charlton, Robson and Gerrard were all excellent footballers, but they are classic examples of English hero footballers. Hoddle with all his fancy continental tricks was generally viewed with suspicion.

        • July 17th 2018 @ 12:37am
          Tirateg said | July 17th 2018 @ 12:37am | ! Report

          Beacause the mentality in England is that a good big un will always beat a good little un. Historically the pitches were poor and small in size. The fans would be most impressed by passion and hard tackling, all of these cliches are changing now and skill, trickery and intelligence are now promoted.

      • July 14th 2018 @ 11:39am
        Vennegor of Tarsus said | July 14th 2018 @ 11:39am | ! Report

        It’s by far the best I’ve seen England play in a long time bar the Croatia game. Technical ability includes being able to pass the ball something this team did much better than previous squads. The team will improve and football will come home

      • July 14th 2018 @ 4:31pm
        damo said | July 14th 2018 @ 4:31pm | ! Report

        +1

    • July 14th 2018 @ 10:14am
      Redondo said | July 14th 2018 @ 10:14am | ! Report

      The most interesting feature of this English squad is that they have done so much better than previous squads that were so much stronger.

      • July 14th 2018 @ 4:25pm
        AGO74 said | July 14th 2018 @ 4:25pm | ! Report

        It think it is simply because they are a team. The previous versions of England over last 10-12 years have all been about the individual – Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, terry etc.

        Whilst a lot of this squad play for big clubs they aren’t pivotal players at their clubs (Kane and perhaps Alli and Sterling being exception). In essence they are squad players to some extent and I think this club experience helps in integrating them into the national set up.

    • Roar Rookie

      July 14th 2018 @ 12:19pm
      Waz said | July 14th 2018 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

      Coaches around the world are looking closely at what the FA have done/are doing. Around ten years after the Premier League was formed the FA – after a fair bit of navel gazing – figured out its role was joining the dots between massive grassroots participation, successful domestic competitions, and national representation teams.

      The recent success of English National sides is impressive – world and European champions at U17 and U20’s level, frequent semi-finalists in international competitions, and improved world rankings (ELO #5 right now) has been a result of a prioritisation on youth development and a reinvention of England’s playing style and technical skill (If you want to see the best technical players in world football you start by looking in England right now, not Spain or Germany or Brazil) …. and in that same period the England women’s team have achieved a third place finish in a WC (with the men’s having a chance to equal that tonight) an indicator that it’s applied across gender.

      This current men’s side failed at this WC in many ways imo (despite the hype) to leverage the platforms built at youth level and it remains to be seen if Southgate is the man to build on what is now an established talent production line.

      But as we look at an imminent period of revolution and restructuring in Australian football we could do worse than look to England for lessons:

      – the FFAs role should be to stay out of running domestic competitions and instead coordinate youth development from grass roots through school age to full national team.

      – Reinventing national football starts with the youth teams not the full men’s team (as Ange tried) and requires players and national coaches to grow in and through that system (appointing Arnie is not going to revolutionise our football).

      – As clubs invest in their own Academies the FFA must seek to coordinate investment while allowing clubs freedom of style and approach. What we need is a framework for player development not a straight-jacket.

      – and St George’s Park is a reminder of the benefit a centralised CoE can have when it works in conjunction with, and not in competition to, club/state based academies – the AIS needed reinventing not closing down.

      I remain eternally optimistic about the future of Australian football, I see progress every week through my involvement in grassroots football and see close-up the advancements the (sadly the only) professional club in QLD are making with their Acadamy.

      The change we need is in the FFA. And for that we could do no worse than look to England and the FA of the 1990’s

      • July 14th 2018 @ 12:44pm
        Redondo said | July 14th 2018 @ 12:44pm | ! Report

        Beautifully put Waz. Hopefully your comment will prompt the intelligent discussion it deserves.

        Can ypu point me to the best footage of the England underage teams that illustrates your comment about their level of technical skill?

        • Roar Rookie

          July 14th 2018 @ 4:28pm
          Waz said | July 14th 2018 @ 4:28pm | ! Report

          My memory fails me but I think it was carried by Fox over here. If you google England U20/U17 World Cup winners there’ll be match highlights there.

      • July 14th 2018 @ 2:51pm
        Kangas said | July 14th 2018 @ 2:51pm | ! Report

        I agree with all of that , except this current England team was devoid of technical players. They achieved through old methods of winning the set pieces

        They were crying out for a scholes type player to put his foot on the ball against Croatia and dictate play .

        • July 14th 2018 @ 3:56pm
          Redondo said | July 14th 2018 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

          Scholes is a classic victim of the English football mentality, losing out to players like Lampard and Gerrard when others (mostly foreign) had this to say about him:

          https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/8548999/Paul-Scholes-what-the-games-greats-have-said-about-him.html

          • July 16th 2018 @ 3:23pm
            JimmyB said | July 16th 2018 @ 3:23pm | ! Report

            Scholes retired from international football because he didn’t enjoy playing for England, not because of Gerrard or Lampard.

            • July 16th 2018 @ 3:25pm
              Redondo said | July 16th 2018 @ 3:25pm | ! Report

              And I wonder why he didn’t enjoy playing for England.

              • July 16th 2018 @ 7:31pm
                James Butcher said | July 16th 2018 @ 7:31pm | ! Report

                I think he expressed a whole host of reasons none of which related to Gerrard or Lampard.

              • July 16th 2018 @ 8:06pm
                Redondo said | July 16th 2018 @ 8:06pm | ! Report

                It wasn’t personal – he was just played out of position by Eriksson to allow Lampard and Gerrard to play centrally. A waste of a great talent.

        • Roar Rookie

          July 14th 2018 @ 4:25pm
          Waz said | July 14th 2018 @ 4:25pm | ! Report

          Kangas,

          This England team is two bricks short of a full load imo and did a full-on choke in the semi-final. A genuine creative player and a proper DM that can direct the play are glaring deficiencies, and there’s probably more but that’s for their system to fix.

          But this is a very young team, many of which came up through the new system – and the back 3 started at junior level, it’s not a Southgate invention, so you can see them adopting a system for the first time (we’d call it a national curriculum).

          There’s also a question over whether the FA had a plan for Southgate or whether it was just the crisis with Aladice (?) that forced their hand?

          I don’t want to praise the FA too much but what they’ve achieved recently was a decade in the making. There’s lessons there for Australia if we choose to look.

          • July 14th 2018 @ 7:19pm
            Tirateg said | July 14th 2018 @ 7:19pm | ! Report

            I think a team chokes when it doesn’t fulfil its potential and is psychologically lacking and loses to lesser teams much the way england have done in the past at tournaments. This England team lost to a superior team after over achieving with a team that was the youngest and most inexperienced at the tournament. How on earth did it choke?

        • July 16th 2018 @ 3:21pm
          JimmyB said | July 16th 2018 @ 3:21pm | ! Report

          I disagree, there’s plenty of technical players in that England team however they are missing a playmaker. You can be technically proficient without being a playmaker. If England had a Modric, De Bruyne or Hazard type player they would be a really tough proposition not least because those types of players unlock the potential of players like Kane.

          • July 16th 2018 @ 3:29pm
            Redondo said | July 16th 2018 @ 3:29pm | ! Report

            If England had a Modric and actually picked him, he’d look strangely ineffective and everyone would wonder why he couldn’t reproduce his club form for the national team.

            Although, that would probably happen less so today than it would have 10 to 20 years ago, which is a sign of progress I guess.

            • July 16th 2018 @ 7:31pm
              James Butcher said | July 16th 2018 @ 7:31pm | ! Report

              Now you’re just being silly.

              • July 16th 2018 @ 8:08pm
                Redondo said | July 16th 2018 @ 8:08pm | ! Report

                Possibly – Modric would play better long balls than Henderson so he might get a run.

    • July 14th 2018 @ 4:41pm
      Nemesis said | July 14th 2018 @ 4:41pm | ! Report

      I’ve had low regard for England National Teams for many years, but this coach & these players changed my opinion.

      The opening 30 mins of the match against Tunisia was amongst the best football I witnessed at the WC2018. Sadly, they never managed to replicate that style for any prolonged period, but they did in various matches for short bursts.

      The only thing missing from England’s team this WC was real quality in the midfield. In particular, there’s a video of Jordan Henderson’s contribution to the match vs Croatia and it’s not pretty viewing. His inability to control the ball, show a bit of composure & hit a meaningful pass is in sharp contrast to Modric, Pogba, Rakitic, de Bruyne, Witsel, etc.. Even Aussie Aaron Mooy & Luongo would have had a positive impact if they were playing in that England team.

      England’s GK, defence, and attackers are as good as anyone else in the world. But, even their attacking midfielders are not game changers. If you put Lampard & Gerard in that England team & I’d say they’d have won this World Cup.

      • Roar Rookie

        July 14th 2018 @ 4:46pm
        Waz said | July 14th 2018 @ 4:46pm | ! Report

        A very astute post. Can’t disagree with it.

        Henderson has his place mind you but he’s a “firefighter” at best and needs a quality mid alongsude him otherwise he’s just a hack.

        • July 15th 2018 @ 2:24pm
          jbinnie said | July 15th 2018 @ 2:24pm | ! Report

          Waz – If one is brutally honest there is more than one position in this England team that can be improved and with that improvement one would hope the team’s overall performance would also be improved..
          Looking at the team as it takes the field one has to start at the 3 man backline. Jones is a player who has had a dream run at United ,apparently being a favourite with 3 different managers,despite all 3 managers publicly worrying about defensive lapses.Jones is what is better termed a “tradesman” player ,seldom if ever doing anything out of the ordinary but usually doing what is expected of him.
          Moving forward we cross the field to his United team-mate Ashley Young who ,as a converted winger, has to be congratulated for his never say die attitude but—–when analysed,plays just like what he is, a converted winger.
          Without knowing the lad personally Henderson has to have a magical personality off the field, for much as I see him playing for England and Liverpool I have yet to be overly impressed.
          He is no Gerrard or Scholes,that’s for sure.
          Up front it would appear there are some problems as well for all the players used are consistent goal getters at their clubs and yet ,in this tournament,they have apparently struggled.
          Is that because if one analyses their “home” teams invariably one finds no English players playing in the various creative positions in midfield? It would certainly appear so and it is a position that Southgate is going to have to face if improvement is to be achieved.
          Is there an English born player who can fill this bill?. We will have to wait and see. Cheers jb.

      • July 14th 2018 @ 5:06pm
        Redondo said | July 14th 2018 @ 5:06pm | ! Report

        Here’s the link…I’m not sure it captures the full extent of Henderson’s awfulness vs Croatia but it’s a start.

        https://www.givemesport.com/1352254-jordan-henderson-kept-making-same-key-mistake-vs-croatia-video-proves-it

        • July 14th 2018 @ 11:51pm
          Kangas said | July 14th 2018 @ 11:51pm | ! Report

          That video depicts why I think England played the long ball all tournament. Even if that’s my selective memory.

          Surely Henderson is the worst English midfielder ever . Dele Ali was invisible also .

          They have better midfielders then Henderson at smaller clubs in England who could have put their foot on the ball and played out .

          If Henderson just finds sterling with a simple pass , England are away .

          Watching England knock out Sweden and then lose to Croatia, I would actually think Australia would be a decent chance of beating England.

          • July 15th 2018 @ 3:31am
            Tirateg said | July 15th 2018 @ 3:31am | ! Report

            Problem is Australia never look like scoring, they are like all good second tier football teams, organised lots of endeavour but if they go a goal down it’s all over.

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