After an uneventful 2-0 win over Albania in England’s second World Cup qualifying match, there were complaints in many quarters that Gareth Southgate’s team were not playing the kind of football that excites supporters. It was a pragmatic display, with goals in either half from Harry Kane and Mason Mount enough to secure a comfortable, if not inspiring, win for England over the eastern European opponents.
But for many England fans, that kind of performance does little to evince faith in Southgate’s side. While it was hardly a barnstorming display, the result was never in doubt, and in the end that is all you want when approaching a major tournament. Too often in the past England have been flaky in big matches at major tournaments, and if Southgate can shore them up a bit defensively then the Three Lions may well roar this summer.
When you look at previous tournament winners in recent times, few sides have triumphed by blowing away their opposition in every match. When you look at France’s victory in the 2018 World Cup, they scored just three goals in the group stage, and didn’t win a match by more than two goals across the whole tournament. Similarly, in 2010, a series of 1-0 victories made up Spain’s knockout results en route to lifting the World Cup.
It’s that kind of control England need to foster. In the past, particularly in the time of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ under Sven-Göran Eriksson, England have perhaps been guilty of trying to stuff the country’s best 11 players into the first team, rather than developing a functional team with players that complement each other’s styles and roles.
Southgate is clearly still trying to find the team that he feels works best for him, and while the matches against San Marino and Albania hardly represented significant challenges, England handled them with control and dominance. After reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup two years ago, it’s important that England kick on and continue to excel at major tournaments. A pragmatic approach may be just the way to do that.
With much of Euro 2020 being played at Wembley Stadium, including England’s three group matches and the semi-finals and final, it’s a great chance for the Three Lions to give another strong showing at a major international tournament. On paper, their group containing Croatia, Czech Republic and Scotland shouldn’t pose too many problems, and in playing in such a way that limits their opponents’ opportunities, England will give themselves the best chance of collecting wins from each of those three matches. They are one of the favourites to win the tournament according to online betting odds, and the pressure is on to deliver the goods.
Although it feels like a lifetime ago, much of the upcoming European Championships will be about making amends for the nightmare defeat to Iceland in France five years ago. That was undoubtedly one of the darkest days for the England national team, but the performances at the World Cup in 2018 helped to alleviate some of that doom and gloom.
Southgate has been in the job long enough now to ignore the naysayers and focus on what he believes is the right method to bring England success at Euro 2020. Who knows, these controlled, pragmatic displays could ultimately yield the kind of success that hasn’t been seen since 1966.