Performance v Sweden
It's interesting how people outside of supporting England care to comment on the progression Gareth Southgate's side has made. Critics (mostly Scottish and scouse) will point to the ease of passage we've had and that we've yet to face anyone decent. Reminds me of how anything Tottenham do is devalued by rival fans because 'none of the big clubs turned up'.
Of course, it will all be flipped if it goes wrong and we get knocked out. At that point, the same critics will laugh at England's plight contradicting their earlier stance of apathy. We'll have bottled it (which ties back into Tottenham perfectly). See how all of this exists to complement the insecurities and discomfort of those that have no reason to be involved? After-all, none of us predicted any of this in the first place.
Sweden was meant to be a tricky fixture yet we played very well and even coped with the pockets of pressure with brilliant last ditch defending as though lives depended on it (and they do). Thus far, even Lady Luck has chosen to flirt with us. I still think there's another level for us to reach in terms of fluidity and movement and making the most of key players and their talents. Again, games in this tournament can be very tight. Sometimes you need to sacrifice for the greater good of the collective.
Personally I would push Sterling wide and stick Dele up top with Kane. That's my armchair suggestion but I'll place my trust in Southgate. If I'm sat here worrying about how we can create and embrace visionary touches against the decent opposition we'll be facing next, then I'm certain the gaffer and the players can too.
Some snapshot insights that are wholly obvious but here they are regardless.
Pickford - Outstanding. Too small some said and yet he's producing moments of sheer magnificence. Got to love his passion too. It's a trait most if not all of the players representing their country are showcasing this summer. You don't care about their club affiliation - the unity and togetherness is transcending. One of the best things I saw on Twitter stated: "Pickford is the keeper Joe Hart thinks he is". Nailed it.
Maguire - He's been so good (Stones too). Definitely the player I least expected to have such a positive impact. He's having a tremendous World Cup.
Trippier - Well hello you. It's amazing when you consider he's one of the best performers in this WC and for so long at Spurs he's been criticised for not being good enough (in terms of defending and beating his man). There's plenty of discussion to be had in how he's utilised under Poch compared to the system and style England play. Spurs might need to revert to three at the back and revitalise the hedonistic days of Rose and Walker flying down the flanks. Tripps deliveries have been superb and he appears completely focused. How we cope against Croatia and perhaps beyond that will tell us plenty about this team. Others might have better individual quality but this is still a cup competition after-all. I would still credit Poch the work he's done on Tripps but GS needs the lions share of the credit for showing us the player has another worthy dimension (caveat here would be that club football is a different beast to international football).
Henderson - Solid and vital in the middle. We don't have a deep lying playmaker or a Christian Eriksen. We have to set up to counter and look for runners. Quick, decisive movement. He's imperative centrally because pretty much everything is pushed out from there and if you're not competitive, you won't win possession. We need him in there cleaning up and biting ankles and to be quick with distribution.
Sterling - It's simple. He's essential because of his pace and his runs (there's more to pace and runs than pure physicality by the way - you need to know when to go and have comprehension of team mates and the space they will be attacking. So it's all about the grey matter). There's a suggestion he's our best attacking player because of what he generates with how the team reshapes when on the front foot as he races ahead. The reason he is heavily criticised is because of the casual outlook 'we' can have on moments where Sterling has the ball and has time to think. He might have scored, he could have passed - his decision making isn't instinctive enough and this is super scrutinised because of the positions he finds himself in. I'm not ignoring the fact that this could be costly in a game where chances are rare. I do think him nabbing a goal will calm his nerves. He needs it and hope he claims it soon. Very soon. The next ninety minutes please.
Lingard - Didn't really rate him and now happy to watch his relentless running and energetic exuberance all game long. Think he sums us all up. Expressive and expansive in hope and desire. England are not anchored to the past and Jesse and co are illustrating it, painting a canvas that is rich with rascal vibrancy. The spirit of this side is infectious and Lingard is the poster-boy.
Dele - Took his goal very well and instantly his body language improved, on and off the ball. Confidence again vital here. Dele has grafted and much like Sterling does a lot of selfless work. But he's not been inch perfect. Of course, players like Dele can ghost in games and then turn up and grab you the match winner. What is key is acknowledging that when ghosting he's still productive. The invasion of space, pulling defenders apart, the pressing, the endeavour to look for defence splitting pass. Again, these games are not easy and patience and temperament are imperative qualities. He has both in abundance. The gaffer's instructions are more important than say the weight you place in generic pass completion stats. An example would be saying that Harry up top has been anonymous because he hasn't had a shot on goal. If you believe that then football ain't for you. Also, bravo to pretending he didn't see his number before he was subbed off. LOL. Good work fella.
Kane - I love him so much. Comes deep to allow our front-line to push ahead of him. Works tirelessly for the team, drawing fouls, holding onto the ball. His stature in this WC has sky rocketed. I'd like us to support him more in the final third because doing so gives England a huge advantage. Perhaps build passages of play around him. Create for Kane in and around the box and do so with regularity and the goals will come. Maybe this is the next level we need to find. Of course (repeating myself), the reason we've not done this is because we've not been allowed. The space hasn't been available. Due to the lack of an Eriksen, the acute balls have been lacking. But we're dangerous from wide positions and set pieces. Still gonna promote the whole 'get Dele up top with Kane' suggestion. Kane has been world class in this competition. World class. Bored of the Twitter casuals telling us all he's faded and struggled.
Gareth, exercising the Ghost of Euro 96, whilst looking dapper in a waistcoat. The way he's presenting himself, that release of passion at the end of each game as he stands in front of the England support screaming like a man possessed. Love it.
There are sterner tests to come. Not just this summer. What is our plan B? How can we adapt and game manage with more proficiency? Some of the questions relate to the quality available for Southgate to select from. If we don't have a Gascoigne or Hoddle in the current generation of players then how do we set up to make the most of what we do have?
However, the positive here is how he's developed this group of players and no matter the result on Wednesday evening, it's obvious that this is truly a new dawn for England. The support they are receiving is unconditional. This entire experience is the foundation we can confidently build on. It's funny that we've gone back to basics. No experimental appointments, no institutionalised necessity to rely on big name players and history. Just get a bunch of lads together that love representing their country.
The Nation is rocking
It’s so easy to forget about the next gen of supporters. They are not yet tainted by cynical traits and emotive baggage. This England side is creating such a buzz. I dare not imagine what happens if we win two more games. Yet imagine is all I can do. This is the power of football, that romanticised notion of glory and that desire to taste it beyond losing yourself in Excel sheets citing xG stats and over analysis.
All the kids watching this WC will be emotionally tied to it for life. Much like I have memories of 1982 (Brazil v Italy) and then 1986 and 1990. There's a risk of course that you'll need to wait a while to better it but that is football and the suffering is a consequence of wanting that little bit more. You still need to be inspired and for the past decade or so that has been lacking for England and their supporters. Not now. Not today. The kids are embracing a new age of heroes, the ilk of which their dads and mums worship too. Long may it continue.
Italia 90 again. Soz.
I keep going back to 1990. I can't stop myself.
It more or less prepared me for life as a football fan (that and the 1987 cup final). I feel like we're owed redemption (winning a WC penalty shoot-out was phase 1, there's still a phase 2 to get past). I can remember saying to myself 'I'll be an old man before we win something'. Well, I'm an old man now so my body and mind is ready and waiting.
The World Cup in 1990 played a part in changing how football was perceived and served as a platform for reform (along with the aftermath of Hillsborough). It pushed towards the birth of the Premier League and took football from the working class yob mentality to an all encompassing generational experience. Something that was required but equally so a life altering shift that many of us still find uncomfortable, with its continued transformation (cheese rooms and expensive match day tickets alike).
Before the change swept through, the most positive raw and immediate influence was on the nation itself. A new generation of supporters latched onto the hype whilst the rest of us felt rejuvenated. When the 1990 team returned to England they were idolised and celebrated as heroes. I think we live in a far more cynical world these-days but hope that no matter what happens, we all solidify our identify with Southgate's men (as already discussed). The fact I'm even writing this all down is evidence that this summer has made a beautiful impact (although the less damage to parked ambulances and chucking glass bottles the better). All this considering how disenchanted I was with international football not so long ago. You too probably.
2018 can truly lay to rest the drama and heartbreak of the glorious failure of Bobby Robson's side. Interestingly, as a footnote, we all - as nation - believe in something that isn't likely to play out because we never really believed it could happen in the first place. Which is why this whole 'It's coming home' meme overload is so brilliantly English. It's also very Tottenham. Not because of the players we have representing the Three Lions. Rather the fact that England have hardly ever won anything (1966) and yet this current side pull at our heart strings so effortlessly. We get targeted as Spurs fans for not achieving anything of note and they don't understand that sometimes there's more to football than the end goal. That the journey (be it one that seems to be ever lasting) is the real treat. Here we are as a nation together, enjoying that very thing we have at Spurs all of the time. We endure, we believe, even if it's out of our control.
Or is it?
My head would implode if we managed to reach our destination and play out a final on Sunday.
I keep telling myself this; We need to be clinical. To be clinical we need to create chances and nullify Luka. The game is gonna be won in the middle. Up against Modric and Rakitic, oh man. What players, what a side. No doubting the hard fact that they have been the most consistent (be it also not at the level they can probably reach - which is scaring me a little).
I reckon the pace and tempo will change to something different in this encounter. Add to it the mental aspect of how players cope because of the pressure, because of being so close to the final. It might be a cauldron of chaos or a collective of composure and chess like movements.
I trust the players and the gaffer that we can adapt to all of this. I am not naive, I know that we're the least accomplished side left. I don't care though. If we're outclassed then fine, what more can you do but applaud the opposing side? What I can't be doing is another penalty shoot-out. No way am I built to survive that. I will stride out of my home and walk the earth for the rest of time if it goes to pens.
Hope we reach that next level in the semi. We have to reach that level. We don't have a choice. Finality is the boss of all of us.
So to tie it all back in with what I said about 1990 and the rest, Wednesday is almost surreal in that it's actually happening. It's actually involving England, in a semi-final.
Let's add some context to this.
It's only the third time in our history that we are playing a World Cup semi-final. it might be small time to say this but it's monumental. Regardless of whether you think we've been lucky or we're the least likely side left to win it. We're in the semi-final. The fact is, England have been small time in the past in fabricating the ideals of being big time. The one time we get rid of the egos and the self-entitlement...wallop. Semi. F**king. Final.
I wont be alone in saying I struggled towards the end of the Golden Gen era and its messy aftermath. Completely disillusioned. Often remarked how f**ked off and bored I was of England. Then out of sheer luck and momentum we reclaim our identity. The ethics of Southgate and even the FA and the players selected have oozed simplicity and class compared to the sometimes heavy handed overly serious approaches of past appointments.
That's the ego and self-entitlement of both players and fans. Personally, I didn't rate Southgate but then I've never rated the FA and just knee-jerked to the same old 'here we go again' default position. The pool of young players we had to select from, I shrugged at. This won't work, I thought. There's no depth. No real stand outs. But slowly and surely, my ego was stripped away too.
I think because it isn't club football where you accept all results and all of the highs and lows because it's the tribe you belong to, international football has a little room for you to move around in if you feel awkward. You don't want to disconnect but you can choose to do so or be forced to do so (say having to watch John Terry captain the side). You can stop caring (even if you don't really ever stop). It's great that we've reconnected with them again. New, younger players with a sense of freedom and pride that matches our own. Everyone is hungry, everyone wants to eat. Nobody is feasting and everyone is happy to share. Compared to the past where it felt like we were all stealing food off each others plates.
It's amazing that I can go from not caring to be utterly scared of being completely soul destroyed by losing a WC semi final nobody expected us to get to and nobody really expects us to win.
Football sometimes doesn't need to be explained. It just needs to be lived.