Oh dear. Here we go again. The rousing chants of ‘Football’s Coming Home’. The wildly optimistic cries of “we’re going to win it!” – and all because of one good result and one excellent one against the might of, er, Tunisia and Panama.
So much for keeping things in perspective. So much for not putting undue pressure on a young, inexperienced England side in this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Of course, England deserve credit for what they’ve already achieved. In their 2-1 win over Tunisia, they showed the kind of composure which has so often been lacking from Three Lions sides in major tournaments, while their ruthless efficiency in their 6-1 thrashing of Panama was a joy to behold – unless you were Panamanian. Or just an Anglophobe.
Yet it’s still a shame that eight years of refreshing realism and rationality from England fans seem to have evaporated in the heat of the Russian summer.
The one good thing about the 4-1 drubbing by Germany in the 2010 World Cup was that it tempered England fans’ expectations. That’s why no one slammed Roy Hodgson’s side for losing on penalties to Italy in the 2012 European Championship quarter-final.
There weren’t even widespread calls for Hodgson’s dismissal in 2014, after England’s most abject showing in the history of the World Cup, in which they picked up a solitary point. Most England fans just shrugged – after all, their side had faced Italy and Uruguay in successive matches, without completely disgracing themselves in either of those 2-1 defeats.
Admittedly, losing to Iceland in the second round of the 2016 European Championship was beyond the pale for Three Lions supporters. However, that was partly because of the manner of the defeat, in which England gave a performance lambasted by Alan Shearer as the worst England display of all time.
Consequently, expectations which were already low became even lower.
Even England’s impressive statistics in their subsequent World Cup qualifying campaign – won eight, drew two, lost none, scored 18 and conceded just three – did little to excite their fans. This was partly because of the standard of the opposition – none of Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania or Malta could be considered footballing powerhouses. More importantly, England’s performances were mixed at best.
In the friendlies between qualification and the tournament proper, the Three Lions were solid rather than spectacular, frustrating Germany and Brazil at Wembley before giving four good performances against the Netherlands, Italy, Nigeria and Costa Rica.
These respectable showings – and a relatively kind World Cup draw with Belgium, Tunisia and Panama – engendered some optimism. But it was only of the ‘at least we’re not going to be terrible this time’ variety. How things have changed after just two games in Russia.
Let’s be clear about one thing. The rest of this article isn’t intended to do England down. It’s only meant to be a timely reality check.
For all the cohesion and maturity they displayed against Tunisia and Panama, England still have plenty of room for improvement. They created enough chances to have won the Tunisia game within the first half hour, yet their finishing was so poor that they needed a last gasp winner to spare their blushes.
As for the Panama game, some pundits have overstated just how awful the Central Americans were. No team can qualify automatically from the CONCACAF group without being at least competent. Yes, they were awful against England – but Southgate’s charges made them look awful.
Nevertheless, the match could have turned out rather differently if Panama had taken a good early opportunity to score. Southgate wasn’t being facetious when he said he wasn’t entirely happy with his side’s performance – England’s passing and defending in the early exchanges were sloppy, as was their marking for Panama’s consolation goal.
In addition, at least two of England’s players have made worrying starts to the tournament. Left back Ashley Young was turned inside out in the opening exchanges against Panama, while Raheem Sterling continues to struggle for form up front. Harry Maguire has also shown a few signs of vulnerability at the back.
On a more positive note, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has looked the part so far, but he’s rarely been tested. It also remains to be seen how Jordan Henderson will cope when he has less time on the ball and needs to do more defending against stronger opponents.
Yet the biggest concern of all is England’s history in World Cup knockout matches, which makes sobering reading for even the most optimistic fan. If we exclude the three matches won with home advantage in 1966, England’s record is as follows – played 14, won five, lost nine. None of those five wins came against leading footballing nations.
All things considered, this writer’s pre-tournament prediction of a quarter-final exit for the Three Lions still looks plausible. Anything better than that would be a wonderful bonus.
Now for the most important point of all. The English have a long and shameful history of building their national team up, only to knock them down when they fall short. This has led to a vicious circle of excessive pressure, fear of failure, underachievement, vilification and scapegoating.
So here’s a final plea to England fans. Please don’t expect too much from the Three Lions – and please don’t slaughter them if they don’t deliver.