After a helter-skelter opening round of group games at the World Cup, the pre-tournament favourites have stuttered whilst those many had tipped to leave Russia with little more than a whimper have announced their arrival in the Motherland with fanfare and pomp.
Having seen big favourites Germany fall to perennial underachievers Mexico in their opening game, both Brazil and Argentina held to draws by the dogged Swiss and Icelandic defences respectively and France underwhelm against Australia, the pressure has been ramped up on the big boys to deliver ahead of their second games of the tournament.
In the case of England, a resolute Three Lions scraped a deserved opening victory against Tunisia that has bucked a major tournament trend for the first time since 2006 in winning their opening World Cup game and there are signs of a major influence taking hold of the English game, that has now seeped into the national team.
Having molded his troops into a well-oiled unit perhaps for the first time since 2002, England players now want to play for the shirt again under Gareth Southgate after a period of disillusion with the set-up in the country that invented the beautiful game.
Whilst the England head coach should take the plaudits for confounding his critics, that success is now achievable in the near future, and it is perhaps the influence of two of his domestic opposite numbers in both Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola who should be lauded if the Three Lions make an impact this summer.
Both the Argentinian and the Catalonian have been revolutionary not just for the Premier League, but for the English game at grass-roots level as a whole.
When Pochettino arrived through the doors at Southampton in 2013, eyebrows were raised at his appointment after largely flattering to deceive at La Liga club Espanyol and having been dismissed just weeks earlier from the Spanish club.
Despite a lowly league position, Pochettino’s work had drawn praise from those in the game however, with specific reference to his tactical style on all of the club’s teams from the senior side down to youth level, and a high-pressing game and the promotion of players to the senior squad, as both his future employers and – perhaps surprisingly – England are now seeing the fruits of.
After a natural bedding-in stage with the Saints, Pochettino was soon becoming one of English football’s most lauded stewards, and above all his coaching abilities were being felt.
His move up the managerial hierarchy to Tottenham Hotspur the season after only served as a headier platform to hone the Argentine’s skills on the Premier League’s proving grounds, transforming Spurs into a side who have on two occasions come agonisingly close to a Premier League crown.
Had the 46-year-old not been introduced to English life, England may never have seen the shining beacon of Harry Kane, who is now being mentioned within an elite band of players that can be called world class front men for the national side, in line with the likes of Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer. His manager has always undeniably and still has the utmost faith in his star striker.
Pochettino’s high-pressing nuances have also seen many come up short against the North Londoners, but if his tremors were marked in the English game, the arrival of Guardiola has been seismic.
In less than two years, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach has made Manchester City one of European football’s top dogs, but above all has turned even the Citizens’ fringe players into the most versatile players around.
Whilst Raheem Sterling has come on leaps and bounds as a player in Manchester – despite ongoing troubles for England – Fabian Delph, for example, was by definition Aston Villa’s biggest talent in a side destined for relegation.
Under Guardiola however, the 28-year-old has forced his way back into the England picture as a James Milner-like utility man who can slot in across the field. The same could become true of Kyle Walker, who thanks to the Spaniard’s tutelage now has the facets to his game to play in a centre back role that Southgate has boldly opted for.
Perhaps the surprising aspect then has been how both men’s style has eked its way into the national set-up, and it is testament to their importance not just to the respective clubs but in the bigger picture for a nation desperate to find hope once more after so many glorious failures or, and in the case of most recent tournaments, just failure.
So to see the Three Lions flood the midfield and opt for a pressing game, with verve, flair and play an attacking style with raw pace is a much-needed shot in the arm. A ploy in no small part, almost forced upon but no less welcome that has once instilled once again English hope on the grandest stage.
When England opened their new centre of football development in Burton in 2012, the initial goal was for World Cup success in Qatar within ten years. Six years on, Three Lions’ optimism is steadily rising on the back of victories for both the Under-17 and Under-20 sides last summer at world youth level.
Whilst the target of 2022 now seems far more realistic, there are whispers that England could perhaps challenge that timeline earlier, such is the winning mentality at lower level. Should that come to fruition, the names of Pochettino and Guardiola should be eternally etched on the walls of St. George’s Park forever.