Watching, re-watching, then double checking again: it felt like an outer body experience, seeing red shirts charge towards Eric Dier and Jordan Pickford in celebration, as finally, for the first time in World Cup history, England won a penalty shoot-out against Colombia on Tuesday night.
England? Won a penalty shoot-out?
It just didn’t seem real.
When Mina’s ninety-third minute equaliser bounced over Kieran Trippier on its way to the net, it was like watching a real-time viewing of the latest addition to England’s Heartbreak show reel, a moment to go along side Batty and Waddle in the World Cup chronicles…
Southgate had finally created a team that excited the country and a clear path to the final was paved – they were almost over the line, but fell at the final hurdle – surely the cycle couldn’t start all over again, with England throwing away yet another golden opportunity at a major tournament. It felt too bad to be true.
Thankfully, it was.
It’s almost as though the nation was bored of England’s cliché penalty exit and after thorough preparation off the field, England qualified for a World Cup Quarter final place against Sweden.
You must celebrate the good times, especially if your country hasn’t won on penalties for twenty-two years. So, players and fans alike, should feel liberated by the shootout win and go into the next stage psychologically stronger, using this momentum and confidence to their advantage when they face Sweden in Samara, on Saturday afternoon.
This time around, England were on the right side of the result, however, history was two kicks away from repeating itself and if Southgate saw an early exit, he’d have some serious questions to answer.
This is a young, exciting and mentally strong England team, however, they failed to seal the deal in ninety minutes. Psychologically at least, they stand in better stead from the extra ‘experience’, but conceding the lead in injury time at a World Cup, jeopardising a quarter final place must not be forgotten going into the weekend.
Granted, this game was the World Cup equivalent of your local friendly sports club playing against the nastiest pub team from the wrong side of the tracks, so it wasn’t easy for England on the night.
Colombia were quick to close down Trippier and Young on the flanks, which stifled the flow of England’s play, often restricting the dominance of possession to their own half. When England had possession in dangerous areas it sometimes felt that the players were playing in awe of the occasion and were slightly reluctant to see the game out.
Set pieces have clearly been a focal point on the training ground and worked on meticulously by Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland, making England a threat, but other than that, they didn’t look dangerous at all in front of goal, where they created very few chances.
There’s no questioning the tremendous job Southgate has done off the field in his preparations for the World Cup. However, his reactionary – or non-reactionary- decisions on it, raised a few concerns.
Dele Alli looked like a player who didn’t fancy it on Tuesday night. Mentally he looked passive and physically, his body language didn’t give the impression that this was someone playing in a World Cup knockout match for England.
It may have been more pragmatic if Southgate made a like-for-like swap with Ruben Loftus-Cheek at half-time. Instead, he left it until the 81st minute where he swapped Alli for his Tottenham Hot Spur colleague, Eric Dier, brought on to shore up the midfield and see out the match. Unfortunately, this is a substitution which failed, inviting Colombia to attack an England side, who sat back to hold out for a 1-0 win.
Southgate didn’t kill the game off.
It’s always risky to rely on a one goal lead in such a tight game, and perhaps he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, but observing the match, it felt as though Colombia were there for the taking.
There was one beacon of hope taken from England’s embarrassing exit to Iceland in 2016 which was the performance of then, eighteen year-old, Marcus Rashford, which lead people to wonder what the outcome would have been if he was brought on sooner on that forgettable evening in France.
The 70th minute felt like the perfect time for the Mancunian to explode onto the scene and go for the South American jugular.
Instead, he waited and waited, then waited some more. In fact, the introduction of Rashford was held off until there were only eight minutes of extra time left to play.
It’s also important to point out that only two England subs were used in normal time. An obscure tactic to have a fresher advantage in extra-time? Perhaps, but it’s a very risky one to adopt in such a big fixture.
If England were on the wrong side of the penalty shootout result, then this is something which would have been picked up on; a Hodgson mistake, repeated by his successor – but IF my aunt had you-know-what’s, she’d be my uncle.
England’s performance was not the prettiest and some non-reactionary decisions may have been called into question, but for once, England can celebrate that things finally went their way and fight to live another day.
Streets coming to a standstill, ‘Three Lions’ being sung from the roof tops and sore heads at work should be encouraged while we live through this historical period of English football and it’s important to live in the moment, however, it’s essential that we learn from – what could have been – fatal mistakes, as England aim to make history on Saturday against Sweden.
Also published on Medium.