If there is a silver lining, it is that this hurts. It did not have to. There was a time when it would not have, in the not too distant past. England are out of a major tournament again, like they were twelve years ago, when performances had nowhere near matched the expectations; like they were eight years ago when they finished bottom of their group; like they were six years ago when arguably the most embarrassing defeat in their history cemented a sense of apathy around this team.
But this time, instead, England are out and it hurts, like it hurt last summer and a few summers before that too. And if this World Cup quarter-final defeat to France sparks any fresh criticism of the person who is mostly responsible for that change in energy and sentiment around England, if it perhaps leads Gareth Southgate to wonder whether it is all worth it in the aggregate and he considers calling time on his six years in charge, then the fact that this hurts again will be his greatest legacy.
Ask anyone what they expected from this meeting of the two best teams left at this tournament and you got the same answer: a game fought at the edges, won in the margins, and that if it came down to it, the world champions may just about edge it. That was ultimately the way the result went but it was not the pattern of the game and not how Southgate and his players will remember their performance. But then this was always going to require something different, something they have not managed in the past 56 years.
With all due respect to Paraguay, Belgium, Cameroon, Denmark, Ecuador, Colombia, Sweden and Senegal, they are not the reigning world champions. None of those sides, at the corresponding time, were considered contenders either. In order to reach a second successive World Cup semi-final, England would have to navigate their way past a genuinely elite-level side in the knockout stages of this tournament for the first time since 1966. The black and white of record books will show they were not ready to write a little line of history.
That will be a grave disappointment to Southgate and his player because strangely, from the moment that they went behind, they felt like the likelier winners.
It is a position that England have hardly ever found themselves in under Southgate. Usually, they are on the other side of the coin: ahead, protecting a slender lead in a tightly-contested knockout tie at a major tournament, trying to keep their toes dry while stuck between a harbour wall and a lapping tide. That was what went wrong against Italy, it was what went wrong against Croatia. This was a different assignment, though. They are not used to being behind and chasing parity.
Before Aurelien Tchouameni’s strike, only once had they conceded the first goal in the knockout stages of a major tournament under Southgate – to Denmark, in the semi-finals of last year’s European Championship. Steve Holland, Southgate’s assistant, this week recalled the nine minutes between Mikkel Damsgaard’s free-kick and the Simon Kjaer own goal to equalise as a key moment in the six years of their tenure.
“From a management perspective and on the bench, we’ve lived these moments now,” he said. “It does make us stronger. It gives you that sense of familiarity and when it does occur in the game, actually it’s ‘we’ve been here before, this can happen, we know what to do, we need to stay calm’. I feel we are as prepared and experienced now that we have ever been to manage those moments.”
If you are looking for a tangible difference from the miserable days of old, something that Southgate and his staff have actually improved – and if for some reason, reaching the latter stages of major tournaments does not do it for you – then watch back the 36 minutes between Tchouameni scored and Kane equalised from the penalty spot. It was not exactly Brazil 1970. It was still Southgate-era England. But all the positives of this era: the resilience, the organisation, the refusal to panic under pressure.
Even after Kane’s penalty levelled, England continued to be the game’s protagonists, persisted in playing on the front foot. Southgate’s greatest weakness – a reluctance and perhaps inability to affect events from the touchline – was cast irrelevant by the performance. England were the better, more proactive side. There was no reason to fix something that was not broken. In a match that was always likely to be won by moments, England were having the majority of them.
Yet fail to defend one cross properly and you can be punished. Then, if your best goal-scoring chances are penalties and you rely on a player who has already missed twice this season, there is a fair chance he might not convert at least one of his two. Those were the margins that this quarter-final was always likely to be decided on. England fell on the wrong side of them. In doing so, they missed an opportunity to overcome a beatable France, progress to a winnable semi-final and from then, who knows.
There will inevitably be questions of Southgate and of what next. There always has been, even after unquestionably successful tournaments, and this World Cup campaign admittedly falls short of that mark. But those questions really only have one answer. The other twelve men to succeed Sir Alf Ramsey since 1966 managed six wins in tournament knockout games between them. Southgate has equalled that record alone. That should be enough to answer the most incessant and unreasonable critics.
Southgate’s record is now a semi-final, a final, a quarter-final. Take a kind draw here, take meeting the world champions in a quarter final there. Whichever way you look at it, it is far better than what came before. Had a few edges gone England’s way in Al Khor, it may have looked better still. But even so, this hurts.
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