Among the many positive aspects of England’s 3-0 victory over Wales was the sense of progress.
Since the 1960s only Alf Ramsey, Bobby Robson and Sven-Goran Eriksson have led England to three different tournaments. Ramsey peaked in his first, the 1966 World Cup, Robson’s reign ended with near-misses at Mexico 86 and Italy 90, but included a horrific performance at the 1988 European Championships. Eriksson’s England looked like a color bust when they lost to Portugal in the 2006 World Cup.
Conversely, Southgate is on track to improve with each showing. Another group stage was played in an increasingly familiar pattern, an easy win, a defining moment and a test passed.
What is most striking is how in every genre of play England improved under Southgate. Equally important, there are many examples in the history of modern England of comparable failures.
The easy win
In 2018 England took on the alleged Panama floggers. They held Belgium to a goalless draw until half-time in their opener and eventually lost 3-0, then England beating them 6-1 at the height of their set-piece might was a happy surprise .
At the last European Championship a forgettable 1-0 win against the Czech Republic was a significantly less brilliant score and a far worse performance. England allowed the game to drift away but never looked in serious danger. We extend this category to include reasonably simple wins.
Here in Qatar, an Iranian side who have given trouble to Wales and the United States have been wiped out, England still scored six but conceded two. Opponents limited, but Southgate’s side played some of the most exciting matches in a Euro 96 tournament from a 4-1 defeat of the Netherlands. In these eyes, that match far eclipsed the performances of Panama and Czechoslovakia.
IN CONTRAST: England 2 Trinidad & Tobago 0, 2006, 83 painful minutes before Steven Gerrard broke the deadlock against a new World Cup side
A feature of all three of Southgate’s tournaments, but each was followed by a win. In 2018 it was the final group stage match against Belgium, although with both teams through and substantial changes made, a 1-0 defeat didn’t look too damaging, beyond the curbed momentum after Panama.
Two 0-0 draws have played a similar role in tournaments since then. Scotland at Wembley half full matched the depressing weather. Four days ago there was another mood-ruining Friday night against the United States, but that result looks believable now that their opponents have progressed to the round of 16 (unlike Scotland).
It’s hard to argue that one weak offensive performance is better than another, but result-wise the USA draw eclipses the point against Scotland.
IN CONTRAST: Two entire group stages that were massively deflated. In 2010, when a talented but aging England only managed a draw against the United States and Algeria, they then snuck past Slovenia. Then home in six days in 2014 after Roy Hodgson’s side had lost to Italy and Uruguay. These nadirs are worth remembering when bemoaning the boring draws in their years at the top of the group.
The test passed
Tunisia wasn’t the first terrifying opponent against Russia in 2018, but the match was a test of courage. Ferjani Sassi’s penalty canceled out Harry Kane’s lead and the helpless work that followed was familiar to anyone who has seen England at tournaments this millennium. A Kane header from a corner kick in the 91st minute suggests a team made up of stronger stuff.
An impressive start to Euro 2020/21, against World Cup finalists Croatia at Wembley. England hammered out a tight match with a possession cure that had eluded them for a generation and held on for a 1-0 win, flawless tournament football.
This time it was Tuesday night’s return win over Wales, a response from Southgate to critics of his display of attacking talent. Switching positions from Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford after the break resulted in arguably the best performances ever in an England shirt for both, followed by goals.
IN CONTRAST: Make your choice of similar failed tests. He came back late to draw with Russia at Euro 2016, in similar circumstances to Tunisia’s 2018 match. Folded against decent opposition in 2014 (Uruguay, Italy), he also failed to defeat Sweden in 2006, drawing 2-2 .
Senegal look analogous to Colombia in 2018 or Denmark in 2021: capable opponents, a performance improvement required by the group stage, but ultimately they should be beatable. The progress here would be to win in regular time without the need for a penalty shoot-out or a dubiously awarded penalty.
Then in the quarter-finals it looks likely to be France, with Argentina standing a slim chance if something unexpected happens in Group C on Wednesday night and they finish second in their group.
Much more difficult, but England must take heart that two of the leading monkeys have already been shaken off their backs under Southgate. They won on penalties against Colombia in 2018 and beat an elite team (in name and history if not current capabilities) Germany at Wembley last year.
Clearly they would be underdogs against France or, perhaps later on, Brazil, but beyond those two England should picture themselves against anyone here.
In light of these incremental improvements and knowing that Southgate’s first tournament ended in the semi-finals and the second as a beaten finalist, it may be time to bring out the stamina.