Defeat to Iceland in the round of 16 at last year’s European Championships was undoubtedly the lowest point of a truly abysmal decade for the England national football team. Losing to the Nordic tournament debutants followed the failure to get beyond the group stages at the 2014 World Cup, the 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany that ended a woeful tournament four years earlier and being unable to even qualify for Euro 2008.
Yet there was cause for optimism, least of all because it seemed things really couldn’t get any worse. With the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford, the Three Lions had a core of very promising young players that looked set to be the heartbeat of the squad for years to come. But whilst that trio have continued their respective meteoric rises in the 15 months since the humiliation at the Stade de Nice, the national team in general has largely remained uninspiring, discouraging and in a sense of chaos.
On the surface, this might appear to be an unfounded comment considering that last night we secured our place at the 2018 World Cup finals, becoming only the third European nation do so apart from hosts Russia. But a glance at how this qualification was achieved and the reaction to it perfectly sums up how the squad remains a long, long way off where it needs to be at this present time. I’m not sure anyone would have argued with the result if the game against Slovenia had ended 0-0, but Harry Kane’s 94th minute goal meant that Gareth Southgate’s side walked away from a dull, tedious encounter with a 1-0 victory. It was clear to see that a new possession based system was being implemented, but the passing had no intent or purpose about it. A lot can be said about a match when the most exciting moments are not to do with the football on show, but a paper plane landing on the pitch and a spectator invading the field of play.
This was not how the evening should have panned out. This was an opportunity for England to go out and make some kind of a statement about the quality they possess ahead of next summer. Instead, they found it difficult to break down a nation ranked 55th in the world and showed what unfortunately many onlookers already knew – they really won’t cause anyone that much trouble. In truth, we haven’t shown an ounce of threat at any point in this qualifying campaign. Results have been rescued in stoppage time against Slovakia, Scotland and now Slovenia. Malta and Lithuania, both ranked lower than 100th in the world, have only been beaten by two goals at Wembley. I suppose we should be pleased that our expectations haven’t been catapulted ahead of a major tournament this time (until we beat Brazil and Germany next month that is), as it almost feels like the Three Lions have stumbled across the line and depressed the entire country in the process.
As a nation we have finally come to the same realisation that I imagine the rest of the world has had for years – England aren’t very good at football. The fact that qualification has been met with more jokes than jubilation is a massive sign of that. For the second consecutive qualifier, Wembley’s attendance was below 70,000 and very few of the crowd were still in the ground to cheer Kane’s late winner, let alone the lap of honour that the team barely deserved after the final whistle. Instead, everyone was busy celebrating in jest on social media . “Football’s coming home”, “Jules Rimet still gleaming” and “We’re gonna win the World Cup” must have been tweeted thousands of time along with Gareth Southgate’s “During the week I just drink mostly water and stuff like that, but you know I enjoy a few beers at the weekend” interview from his time as a player. It’s demoralising that we’re now poking fun at ourselves with so much ease and so little care.
In the past, despite repeated disappointment every other summer, hope and optimism has been refreshed for the next major tournament. That is not the case this time around. We’re now preparing for the worst, preparing for humiliation, which is a sad state of affairs but is indicative of the dire straits the national team finds itself in.
We’re stuck in a rut of mediocrity. Whilst I said even before he was appointed that Mr Southgate was not the man to get us out of the rut, there are two ways that the 47-year-old can begin to resurrect the team’s hopes. Firstly, he needs to have the courage to give the squad a shake up. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge, Jesse Lingard and Fabian Delph have made a combined total of just eight Premier League starts so far this season yet were all handed call-ups. A couple of problems occur if players such as these are included in the squad based on their reputation and the fact that they ply their trade for big clubs. Not only does it make them feel more comfortable and mean that they don’t work as hard, but it also makes it even more difficult for other players, who are likely playing better and more frequently for their clubs, to earn deserved caps.
The second ‘change’ Southgate needs to implement is certainly easier said than done. He just needs to ensure a good showing at a major tournament, in this instance the World Cup. Really, that is the requirement of any England manager, but it has become such a rarity that it may actually be considered an achievement if the Three Lions win a knockout game for the first time in 12 years in Russia next summer.
It is pleasing to know that Southgate shares the feeling that a lot of improvement is needed before his team arrive at their base in St. Petersburg, so we can only wait to see if he is able to carry this out. But for once, the country isn’t holding it’s breath.