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challenge now is bridging promise
Southgate youíre the one. Englandís single greatest upgrade at this World Cup: they have a manager who sweated the small stuff that makes the big stuff. The great skill of Gareth Southgate has been to manage the details around this team, to implement the ďelite sportĒ habits of British Olympic and cycling success through sports science, psychology, useful gimmickry. A carefully-schemed team culture has been fostered. Players have been picked on the basis of ability to ďbuy intoĒ this, as well as physical types: fit, athletic, good habits. England borrowed the
ďNo DickheadsĒ rule from the All Blacks. And theyíve become likeable. This isnít surprising. They havenít got any dickheads. The fact this kind of quality is being rewarded is progress in itself. But still not quite whole again.
Southgate talks constantly about development. He will know the tactical, game-management part of his World Cup was less of a feature. This is understandable. Southgate is still inexperienced. England donít have much on the bench
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to play with. Still, though, Englandís substitutions were a non‑event. The tactic of pumping long passes forward in the semi-final became predictable. The entropy after half‑time against Croatia was reminiscent of other tournament deaths. Back in 2002 Southgate himself noted that England needed Winston Churchill but got Iain Duncan Smith from Sven Goran Eriksson. Watching on Wednesday night from his latest franchise-league outpost as England ran out of ideas, Sven might just have sighed a little to himself. There is much to ponder, as well as build on.
The best thing about the past year has been Southgateís understated ruthlessness. From the overdue ousting of Wayne, to the refusal to take anyone to Russia who wasnít fit or in form, there has been a heartening element of coldness to the managerís judgment calls. That must now be applied to his group, to the next step. No favourites. No favours. Keep on pruning back the dead heads.
Keeping the ball, passing carefully. This was the revelation of Englandís tournament, a genuine first right up to the moment they started sending it long and trying to hit Raheem at the Luzhniki. This was modern. This was progressive. This actually looked like international football. Donít turn back now.
At what point does going on about how you donít go on about your team become going on about your team? How easy is to remain humble when everyone talks constantly about how
wonderfully, spectacularly humble you are? It is easy to imagine that the hype will now be ramped up again, the expectations lumped on once more, the train cranked back into gear. The test from here is to keep that throttle low, to accept that England beating Panama, Tunisia and Sweden should be a cause of enjoyment and fun. But itís not yet a sign
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of the second coming (home).
There is a sub-set of human being who will maintain England somehow fluked a semi-final, that any team they managed to beat must, by definition, be useless. This is clearly misguided. England beat Sweden, Ukraine and Wales at their last three tournaments combined. They have just won three games and a shootout in a month. To denigrate this is sour grapes, the agony of seeing somebody you automatically dislike doing quite well for once. Either that or a degree of English arrogance that insists ultimate victory is the only kind of victory. Portugal drew with Iceland, Austria, Poland and Hungary
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en route to winning the last European Championship. Is Cristiano Ronaldo also a hair-gelled fraud? The sensible view is that this team performed with energy and adopted a set of tactics that worked against opponents at the same level. The parts that succeeded can be built on.
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The rest is just noise.
There will also be carping about Harry Kaneís proximity to the golden boot. Three penalties, a deflection and two tap-ins. Just Fontaine must be bricking it. But Kane actually showed his ruthlessness at this World Cup. There is a reason his six goals were carved out of only 12 shots. England just didnít make many chances from open play. Luckily they had a one-shot sniper on board when the moments came. There may be issues with this team. But Kane really isnít one of them.
They didnít before the World Cup. They
do know. Jordan Pickford may still make mistakes, may have some dips, but he was probably Englandís best player in Russia and deserves a long run at this now.
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