It’s not often you can say this, but so far, it’s been rather enjoyable watching England at the World Cup.
Other than a small period of uncertainty before Harry Kane’s winner against Tunisia, things have been scarily straightforward for Southgate’s side, who clinically demolished Panama on Sunday afternoon and following the German’s premature exit after Wednesday’s shock defeat to South Korea, things seem to be falling frighteningly into place.
However, as the Three Lions prepare to face Belgium in their final Group G match, it seems that this period of straightforwardness is ending abruptly. It’s literally been too good to be true and it would be typical for England to win Group G and still end up worse off.
It’s an easy observation to make, but with social media timelines now inundated with tongue in cheek posts about ‘Football Coming Home’, the country has already started to dream, and many eager observers have calculated England’s potential route to the final, which would (probably) be smoother than if they finished second to Belgium.
The funny thing is, people seem to forget there are two games of football to be won (or lost) between now and then.
It’s impossible to imagine Southgate approaching the Belgium game with the intention of finishing second, solely to keep a potential fixture with Brazil at bay for as long as possible. Yes, England are likely to face an easier opponent in the quarter-finals if they are runners up in their group, but there’s no way he’d want to slow down any momentum that’s been steadily building, even before the tournament started.
The nation’s optimistic outlook is both refreshing and presumptuous; people can realistically visualise this young side fearlessly taking on any one in the competition, but forget that – compared to previous tournaments – they’ve had a relatively kind draw.
Admittedly, England teams of old may well have capitulated against Tunisia and Panama or won with far less panache. But the first two games of the 2018 World Cup have allowed this side to express themselves on the ball, secure six points and build optimism about the country’s World Cup prospects.
If Southgate was dealt the same hand as Hodgson in 2014, feelings towards England’s potential success this time around would be significantly more mixed – there’s no doubt that the Uruguay and Italy teams seen at the Brazil World Cup would pose far greater tests than this England side have faced so far.
Momentum is huge in tournaments, so England’s feel-good-factor is extremely advantageous heading into the knock-out stages. With less pressure on the team and more belief than there’s been for a long time, there’s a feeling that the likes of Rashford, Loftus-Cheek and Lingard (to name just three) are desperate to show the world how good they are, rather than simply doing their best to minimise a domestic bashing, following what would previously have been an ‘inevitable’ exit.
Of course, people can fantasise about England winning the World Cup and there’s no point in supporting your country if, deep down, a small part of you doesn’t think ‘What if…?’.
However, it would be more beneficial and probably – in the long term – less disappointing, if the country channeled the same emotion into celebrating the side’s positive approach to each game and watching a team that’s proud to represent their fans, whilst making the most of their opportunity.
So far, England are fulfilling their manager’s aspiration of sending ‘people to work with a spring in their step’ and no matter where the end of the Russian road is for this group of players, if they approach their remaining fixtures in the same fashion as Panama and Tunisia, then the nation can ask nothing more.
Winning the World Cup is extremely difficult and you’d be naïve to think Panama and Tunisia are the acid test in predicting how far England can go, but Southgate has done a great job in ushering any negativity away from his squad, so when it comes to the knockout stages, his players will be in a far better psychological frame of mind than many England sides before – especially now there’s no prospect of a penalty shootout with Ze Germans.
This will be crucial in determining how England deal with the inevitable, high pressure, situations of the tournament’s latter stages. Moments looked back on for years to come. The question is, whether they’ll be able to deal with them?
Stranger things have happened.
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Also published on Medium.