As England left their training base today they will have no doubt still been dreaming of what might have been after the heart-breaking loss to France, in the World Cup Quarter-Final at the Al Bayt Stadium last night.
Talk will long linger about the penalty that might have been, the one which was missed, and the decision making of the officials. But, England’s performance in Qatar breathed new life into the future of Gareth Southgate as the national team manager.
Just a month or so ago, dissenters suggested it should be the final hurrah for Southgate, after a horrendous run of form before the team headed out to Qatar. England went six games without a win before they dismantled Iran in their World Cup opener.
Even that blowout of Iran didn’t stir the soul of those same people who were down on the England manager. As some said it should be expected to run rampant over such a lowly nation.
Then, when England were pushed very hard by the USA, the negative voices got a little louder.
On that occasion it wasn’t the lack of victory, the manner of the performance caused the consternation. It all seemed slow, too safe and there was a distinct lack of penetration. Team selection was criticized, and doubts were cast about the prospects of qualification.
Although only a four goal thumping by Wales in the final group game would see the Three Lions go home.
However, the game against the Welsh flipped the script, as Southgate went with a more attacking line up. England strolled beyond Wales who were made to look a mere shadow of their usual hardworking selves and it was Robert Page’s side going home, not Southgate’s.
The conversation changed against Senegal
The way the Three Lions put Senegal to the sword in the round of 16 was frighteningly good. Aside from one chance before England took the lead, the result was never in doubt.
Southgate’s side looked composed on the ball, well organized and focused on the game plan with a rather attack minded starting line-up.
They lured in their opponents and hit them with a sucker punch to get ahead, and then there was only one team in the game. Southgate clearly saw that as the way forward, and it totally opposed what many had seen from England. Who had been labelled as slow, predictable, and far from the sum of their parts.
Against France, the line-up remained the same, however the one ripple in the game plan was the need to cull the threat one of the deadliest strikers in the world, Kylian Mbappe.
Before kick-off, the forward had netted five of France’s goals and was the fulcrum for almost everything in an attacking sense.
Southgate got tactics right
Kyle Walker, had the experience to deal with him and as the game wore on, there was little said about Mbappe and more of England’s attacking prowess.
It showed Southgate got it right, one of the world’s leading lights didn’t shine bright at all. They even exploited the spaces he left behind, and that’s despite Walker being unable to help Bukayo Saka in an attacking sense.
Saka was terrific cutting his own path through the France defence, who resorted to aggression and fouling him to stop him.
England were progressive in their play, and in the second half in particular looked like the more likely team to win.
They had a real dynamism, with Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson’s energy and Declan Rice marshalling anything ahead of the back four.
Ultimately though when it comes to the best teams facing off, games are won and lost in the blink of an eye.
After a very good defensive performance from England, they once lost sight of Olivier Giroud and he heads home in typical style. Then the usually ever reliable Harry Kane blazes a penalty over the top. Fine margins indeed.
While the record books will forever read, England 1 France 2. Anyone who had the pleasure of watching the game will say it should have been the Three Lions facing Morocco in the Semi-finals and not France.
England deserved to go further, and that is thanks to Gareth Southgate. With the European Championships coming up in 18 months, it gives him one more hit at glory with this extremely talented and exciting England squad.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Xinhua
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