World Cup 2018: England's incredible journey of 'luck' from Volgograd to Moscow
Reaching the semifinals
As the ball went sailing over the wall and slowly past Danijel Subasic into the back of the net, the dream was still alive and the English fans erupted in joy. The Luzhniki Stadium was set alight just 5 minutes into the semi-final and the Lighting Seeds classic, ‘Three Lions’ roared inside the stadium. The euphoria was indeed real.
Having held on to this slender lead — courtesy of a beautiful free kick goal from Kieran Trippier — for more than an hour, England were just 23 minutes away from reaching their first World Cup finals after an arduous wait of 52 long years; a chance to play France in the same stadium in 4 days' time for the ultimate glory. Football was indeed coming home.
While a large section of the people would like to believe it was sheer ‘luck’, it was more than luck that was behind this extraordinary run. This journey started in the September of 2016, when the then England manager Sam Allardyce, had to quit following a newspaper investigation when he was found giving advice on how to bypass certain rules related to player transfers, after being just 67 days in charge.
New beginnings with Gareth Southgate
How did England even reach this stage though? A side that had gone out of the group stages in the previous World Cup and knocked out by minnows Iceland in the 2016 European Championships, was at best expected to reach the quarter-final stage.
The FA were swift in appointing Gareth Southgate as a manager in charge for the upcoming 4 matches, in what appeared to be a stop-gap arrangement while they looked for a suitable successor.
It isn’t unusual when people look at Gareth Southgate and perceive him to be the soft-spoken, well-mannered guy who wouldn’t hurt anyone. There is so much more underneath that waistcoat and innocent face. Various incidents in Southgate’s life made him what he is today.
Having been released by Southampton at the age of 16, Southgate had to wait a long time before getting his senior cap for Crystal Palace. He was part of the Crystal Palace side when they got relegated from Premier League. He also captained all the 3 clubs he played for, namely, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough.
The missed penalty at the 1996 European Championships causing England’s exit to Germany is not something that Southgate can forget easily. As a manager, he only survived for 3 seasons at Middlesbrough before getting sacked.
After being appointed the manager of the England senior team, it was not long before Southgate secretly took his England squad on a surprise trip to the Royal Marines’ Commando Training Centre in Devon. It was an exercise to show the team how they could adapt in moments of difficulty.
Speaking about the camp, Gareth mentioned - “There were some team objectives around pushing themselves beyond where they thought they could go and knowing you don't want to let any of your team-mates down…We wanted to expose the guys to an elite environment with one of the elite forces in the world. We wanted them to see that there's another world out there.” However, for Gareth, the greatest outcome was that they worked as one team – all the support staff and players.
Even though the FA appointed Southgate as a -‘caretaker’- manager, it seemed he had a clear plan and a disciplined approach on how to take this team forward. The England squad had great team dynamics and sense of togetherness going into the World Cup and it was clearly evident throughout the tournament in Russia as well.
A new-look England squad
Perhaps, that should not be a surprise to people were they to look at the roots of the majority of the players in this squad and of Gareth himself. Before being appointed the caretaker manager of the England senior team, Southgate was in charge of the England Under-21s. He was in charge of the squad from 2013 to 2016 and was part of one major tournament with the squad, the Under-21 European Championships in 2015.
Jack Butland, John Stones, Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were all part of this squad. Although not featuring in the 2015 tournament, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier and Jordan Pickford have all played under Gareth Southgate as part of his Under-21 setup.
That is almost half the England senior squad and 6 of the 11 players in the starting line-up. Having managed these players before, Gareth clearly knew what their strengths and limitations were.
England went unbeaten in their World Cup qualifying campaign. While Southgate had tough decisions to make in selecting the right squad during the qualifying campaign, he had far more difficult days ahead while deciding the World Cup squad. Southgate dropped England’s record goalscorer Wayne Rooney during their qualifying campaign and sent a strong message to everyone that England had a manager not to be messed with.
On 16th May 2018, Gareth Southgate announced the final 23 of the England World Cup squad, a squad which drew criticism from a certain section of the fans, largely due to the exclusion of Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey. Southgate had clearly shown faith in some of the younger players such as Nick Pope and Trent Alexander-Arnold and decided to take them to Russia.
With the departure of Wayne Rooney, the last of the golden generation, this was a new look English side with greater bonding. Going into the tournament, the entire squad clearly knew that the only star player they had was their captain, Harry Kane. They had finally got rid of the big-egos and were slowly starting to find the much-needed stability in the squad.
John Stones, who hardly had any game time at Manchester City during the 2017/18 campaign, was being deployed at the heart of the English defence and the guy guarding their post had just 2 international caps. They had the third youngest squad at the tournament and the least experienced in terms of international caps.
The two players who were once the great hope of England for their respective sides were David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. While the former ended up in the 1998 World Cup with a red card against Argentina, the latter had a similarly notorious moment during the 2006 World Cup against Portugal in the quarter-finals.
Cohesiveness and discipline
However, this young squad certainly came of age and displayed great maturity in their approach during each game. England had 0 suspensions during the World Cup and absolutely no moment of madness. None. Even when a sheet of paper containing some tactics and the possible line-up found its way to the media before the Panama game, Southgate did not make a hue and cry and just shrugged it off, instead focusing on the game in hand.
There was a new-found unity and optimism around this squad. Strategies were clearly in place and they knew that they had to play according to their strengths, or rather within their limits.
For a country that seems to be organized in everything, they certainly used the ingrained discipline to their advantage on the pitch by forming a queue during the corners and suddenly causing chaos and drawing fouls or finding the back of the net. England went on to score 9 goals from set pieces, most by any team in a single World Cup since 1966, when Portugal had managed to score 8.
There's nothing called an 'easy win' in the World Cup
While many would attribute England’s fantastic run to a kind draw, England still had to win those games. If there is anything that this World Cup has reminded us, it is the fact that there is no such thing as an ‘easy game’ in a World Cup.
Spain, whose players were technically superior than this English side, were in the same half of the draw but ended up losing to hosts Russia in the Round of 16. All 32 countries are at the World Cup for a reason and every single team wants to make their nation proud and are willing to give their everything for it.
As a famous saying goes, you can only beat what’s put in front of you. England had to overcome a tricky Colombia in Round of 16 and a very capable Swedish side in the quarter-final. Remember, this is the same Swedish side who destroyed the hopes of Azzurri and the Dutch in the qualifying rounds and prevented them from playing at this World Cup finals.
The dreams slowly started fading away once Ivan Perisic equalised in the 68th minute. It all seemed too familiar for England. The defensive frailties were exposed and the shortcomings in the squad, which they had managed to overcome until then, started pegging them back.
The absence of a midfield orchestrator was very evident in the way England struggled to win the midfield battles against Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. The lack of experience in big games for a majority of the players did prove costly. There was no leader, no character on the field who could urge the squad to give their everything and endure for the 30 minutes of extra time, in what was probably the biggest night of their footballing career.
A compassionate gaffer
Gareth Southgate led this team by example, through his discipline, kindness and compassion at different stages in this incredible journey. He clearly supported Danny Rose, when the defender publicly acknowledged battling depression and helped him overcome the same.
Just before England’s Round of 16 clash against Colombia, Fabian Delph had the privilege of flying back to England for the birth of his child. However, Gareth Southgate’s true class was on display after winning the penalty shootout against Colombia. The England manager, having undergone the pain of missing a penalty and being the reason for his nation’s exit at a major tournament, consoled Colombian Mateus Uribe whose missed penalty cost his nation dearly.
Southgate managed to do something similar, after England’s exit in the Semi-Finals by reaching out to several Croatian players and congratulating them on their outstanding achievement in making the finals. He takes us back to these lines from Rudyard Kipling –
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it
Although the euphoria was short lived and football certainly did not come home, this young England team achieved wonders and gave the nation plenty of moments to rejoice. The skepticism surrounding this side has vanished and it is replaced by belief and optimism for the future. At a time when the country’s political situation is in turmoil, Gareth Southgate and his side united the nation and made them fall in love with the national team once again.
The future looks bright with many of the players still in their early 20s and new players coming up the ranks from the England Under-17 and Under-20 World Cup-winning teams.
Clearly, there was much more than luck that played its part in what was a fantastic journey for England!
What are your opinions on Gareth Southgate as a manager and the future of England football? Tell us in the comments below!