Is Football no longer Coming Home? Have we lost our heads again over England at the World Cup?

“This week on Love Island,” began the narrator. “A twist. Six new girls. Six. New. Boys.”

Only, this happened last year, and will most probably be flogged to death until we’ve long since stopped watching.

“Like Big Brother, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent,” as the country’s future Prime Minister Danny Dyer said last night on Good Evening Great Britain.

Even the contestants knew about Casa Amor. The narrative has been just as predictable from the moment England arrived in Russia: give them what they want. But for how long will journalists following England at a World Cup be relevant?

England Media Access - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaFrom the sparsely populated mixed zone following their opening group game win over Tunisia in Volgograd, it was apparent that the rest of the world don’t think much of England’s chances of winning the tournament.

And yet the subsequent 6-1 thrashing of Panama led to a sense of euphoria in the press box not seen since Euro ’96, brought cascading back down to earth by the B team’s 1-0 defeat by Belgium that has created a “sense of anti-climax’ according to the Guardian’s London football correspondent Dominic Fifield.

Speaking on the Sunday Supplement podcast, he said: “There were too many changes, it was too disruptive, and I think it’s exposed the depth of squad quality that we’ve got. It feels a bit of a waste.” But has it really?

Does it merely show what happens when you throw a group of players together without a competitive match between them in over a month?

GettyImages-986404052.jpgThose who steadfastly defend Gareth Southgate for his team selection – which saw eight changes to the side which beat the Panamanians – claim this might prove a masterstroke. The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel claimed he turned the World Cup into Sports Day.

Make no mistake, the pressure would most certainly still be on if England were facing Japan in the last 16. It would be even greater had the ‘A team’ lost to Belgium’s reserves. That would have been a sack race of a completely different kind.

By risking and ultimately relinquishing England’s position as group winners, Southgate has not only aligned England on the easier side of the draw; he has preserved the confidence of his leading men.

Matt Dickinson, chief sports writer at The Times, chose the word ‘deflating’. “As if the air had gone out”.

Southgate’s strategy was always to win this game, but when he moved Marcus Rashford to right wing-back to make room for Danny Welbeck, the extent to which he was willing to salvage a draw was revealed.

GettyImages-986359798.jpgSouthgate has always been about the long-term, and one defeat with a huge asterisk beside it should not lead to loaded back-page questioning of his tactics.

The ‘build ‘em up to knock ‘em down’ mind-set revisited by Matthew Syed in his Times column this week is now so well known by the public that it’s become a parody of itself.

Did fans truly think they’d win the World Cup after beating Panama and Tunisia? Or are they not just allowed to reminisce about their youth, wearing knock-down Fred Perry polos, singing Fat Les whilst drinking watered-down lager? The criticism of Southgate seems just as disingenuous.

The assumption, of course, is that beating a side incapable of gracing the English third tier had created a sense of momentum. It has been made by those who have travelled and reported on England for decades.

The core group of players who featured in the opening two games have already returned to full-blooded training today without the need for a recovery day ahead of the shorter visit to Moscow to face a Colombia side who were made to fight until the last second by Senegal.

The same Colombia side that is likely to be without James Rodriguez and who indeed were beaten by Japan in their opening game, albeit with 10 men for much of that match.

“The concern is we’ve gone down the same route as 2016,” continued Fifield, referencing the weakened team selected in the final group game against Slovakia. But why do we love so much to stick to this same narrative?

Why do we question when England will ever win a tournament again every two years when we seem to lose our heads at the thought of two similar scenarios being played out in entirely different circumstances?

This, don’t forget, will be like a home game for Colombia. Why? Because there will be thousands more yellow shirts in the stands. They will drown out the few thousand England supporters who have paid lip service to the scaremongering headlines that dissuaded them from visiting this wonderful country.

“The difference with Roy Hodgson’s team at the Euros was that team didn’t have any cohesion already,” reasoned Dickinson. “We were a mess, frankly. It felt like Roy was making it up as he went along in that tournament.

“Now, we know the first team very clearly, but I worry less about the word ‘momentum’. Obviously, all of us are concerned about Colombia, and it’ll be a lot harder than beating Japan. But if I was Harry Kane, or Jesse Lingard, I shouldn’t have lost my momentum.”

But the logic was lost of The Sun’s chief football reporter Neil Ashton, possibly from years of watching England from a privileged position, possibly from being drawn back to that same old narrative that sells.

GettyImages-986397622.jpg“At the full-time whistle against Belgium, I felt flat. Matt talks about tournament momentum and why that should affect Harry Kane, but I definitely felt there was a change of mood when the final whistle went.”

The Belgium defeat has created such a disparity even among those within the media, that being deemed ‘philosophical’ by some is being viewed as ‘using one’s brain’ by others.

Southgate was forced to backtrack on his outspoken belief that the English media should seek to act in the country’s best interest, and by rephrasing his views the following day, his next press conference will be one to monitor with a close eye.

He’ll be asked if he feels the media’s reaction to the Belgium defeat was fair. There’ll be several loaded questions looking backwards rather than forwards. It will be the biggest test of his tenure, getting the likes of the Mirror’s John Cross, who claimed his ‘halo has slipped’ back onside. But should he really be doing this when he has a last 16 match to focus on?

He won’t take kindly to some of the views shared in today’s national newspapers, designed solely to put pressure on him and his players.

Jordan Pickford, who has the potential to become the world’s best goalkeeper, has been grossly victimised in some quarters for the way he made a save in the first half before not keeping out Adnan Januzaj’s fine winner.

GettyImages-986372186.jpg“We have to trust the strategy, but some of it was unnecessary,” continued Fifield.  “I can’t believe Harry Kane will have wanted to sit on that bench last night.” But should we be assuming that had he played, England would have won, Kane would have scored and avoided injury?

What was the greater risk? Where would the momentum be now had England lost their talisman despite beating the Belgians? Southgate has taken what could be his only chance at guiding England at a World Cup to do things his way.

“You’ve got that problem in training.” Again, Ashton is wide of the mark. When you get to the sharp end of the World Cup, ask any player, and you don’t have this problem in training. You’re playing matches and recuperating in between.

When have you heard of a player getting injured in training at this stage of a World Cup? You could probably count them on one hand, in 21 editions. Metatarsal injuries happen in games.

GettyImages-977042740.jpg“He’ll be chomping at the bit on Tuesday,” Fifield said of Kane. “He wants to be two, three goals ahead in this race for the Golden Boot, let alone propelling the team forward.”

He’s right about the first part, but why should Kane’s desire to win an individual trophy come before the prime objective of creating the best potential set of circumstances for the team to win the ultimate prize?

The more astute point being lost is that England, whoever is in defence, have looked suspect at the back. Harry Maguire and John Stones are vulnerable. These are not Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. Both they and Pickford are a work in progress, and we all know this.

If Radamel Falcao is firing, that is why England will go out of the World Cup, not this tedious, phoney war seen in the past 24 hours… between the national team, the media and its favourite narrative.

GettyImages-986407242.jpg

Loading up, Ashton asks, “Do we sometimes see that managers get carried away? That they meddle and start getting too clever, mixing it up, making too many changes and tactics along the way?”

“We just need to place out trust in him,” replied Fifield. “Because if we win the Colombia game –”

“We’ll be back to where we were,” finished Ashton. To where, exactly? To football coming home?

It is the media who shouldn’t be getting carried away. Southgate has kept his head when many appear to have reverted to type in losing theirs.

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