By Jack Hayhurst
Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece and views expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Beehive or The Beehive’s associated writers.
The 2018 World Cup saw England progress to their first semi-final in 28 years, only to be defeated 2-1 by Croatia in extra time. The fact that this was England’s most successful World Cup on away turf resulted in English citizens across the nation declaring their pride for the England squad, likening them to ‘national heroes’, but surely this is a slight exaggeration?
England have undoubtedly improved since their appalling 2-1 defeat to minnows Iceland during the 2016 European Championships. Only 11 players from Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad were picked by Gareth Southgate for this year’s World Cup, perhaps signalling a more youthful approach to the tournament. Southagte’s decision to use younger players to his advantage was undoubtedly the correct one, yet England still seemed to lack quality in certain areas of the pitch.
Despite receiving many plaudits following his performance in the tournament, there is no question that John Stones is a liability in the defence. His mistakes have been justified by both pundits and fans, with his age and lack of confidence appearing to be the main excuses, but now at the age of 24 he should be entering the most successful phase in his career. The seeming expectation that Stones’ ability will dramatically improve over the course of the next few years is personally rather absurd. He is the same age as both Harry Kane and Jordan Pickford, the former being the World Cup’s top scorer and the latter arguably being England’s best player during the tournament, but Stones is not as important to the team as they are. It was in fact Stones who was at fault for Croatia’s winning goal, after leaving Mandzukic unmarked and then turning to criticise his fellow teammates. After the defeat Roy Keane seemed to be one of the few people who acknowledged Stones’ mistake, which was overshadowed by the ‘exclamations of pride’ around the country : “Stones is ball watching and then when the goal goes in he’s looking at people as if he should have got a shout. You’re not going to get a shout in a World Cup semi-final. You’ve got to be aware of it and deal with it yourself. He does get caught out defensively.”
England without question had a remarkably easy route to the semi-final, with Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina all failing to progress past the quarter finals. This was a rare opportunity for England to reach the World Cup final for the first time since their victorious World Cup campaign in 1966, and the fact that they were outclassed by the first decent opposition who came their way was particularly disappointing in my opinion. Despite Croatia having Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic, if the England team was as exceptional as they were perceived to be they surely should have progressed to the final. The defeat to Croatia proved how fortunate England had been to get as far as they did. The weak areas of the team that were not necessarily troubled prior to the Croatia match were severely exposed by the quality that Croatia possessed. With a population of just 4.17 million as opposed to England’s 63 million, there was still a difference in class between the two sides. Albeit Croatia are an excellent team with several world class players, our country should be capable of defeating a nation with less than half of the population of London and with a relatively minor domestic league. The majority of the players in the England squad play for top sides in the Premier League, supposedly the best domestic league in the world, and so jubilant celebrations after beating teams such as Tunisia, Panama and Sweden are perhaps slightly extreme.
If one considers the nations that England faced during their World Cup campaign and the final scores, their World Cup performance has not been as good as others have made it out to be. They scraped past a mediocre Tunisia side as a result of a late Harry Kane header, required penalties to defeat a Colombia side without their best player James Rodriguez, and were defeated twice by Belgium. Some may refer to Panama’s humiliating 6-1 defeat to the Three Lions to support their belief that England’s performances warranted a place in the semi-final, but the Panama side was very poor. Ranked 55th in the world, behind the likes of Burkina Faso and Jamaica, England’s supposed ‘exciting’ and ‘expansive’ football should not simply be replicated against one weak side, and their overall performance should not be judged as a result of one impressive display.
Southgate’s decision to play Raheem Sterling over Marcus Rashford was also a key factor in England’s semi-final exit. Despite featuring in all but one of England’s World Cup matches, Rashford was never given a fitting opportunity to impress. In England’s final game prior to the World Cup he produced an impressive display for such a young player, after his remarkable goal contributed to a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica. Southgate claims to pick players based on form, yet he still decided to choose Sterling who had not scored for England since October 2015 – a woeful stat for a player of his calibre. During this year’s World Cup Sterling once again failed to impress in an England shirt. Despite being a nuisance to defenders when not in possession, it is more important for him to perform well with the ball rather than off the ball. He was in fact positioned further up the pitch than any other England player, even Harry Kane, playing as a ‘false nine’, but in order to succeed in this position his finishing must improve. A tally of four goals would have been reasonable for the Manchester City 23 year old during this year’s World Cup given the sheer number opportunities which he has failed to take advantage of.
Overall, despite being England’s most successful World Cup on away soil, the team should be judged upon their performances on the pitch and the teams which they faced in the process. Reaching the semi-finals is an excellent achievement, but given the teams that they faced along the way their campaign has not been overly impressive. The fact that 75% of their goals from set-pieces suggests that their displays were not in fact particularly convincing and that they relied upon good fortune, both on the pitch and with fixtures, to finish fourth – a vast over-achievement considering they lost three of their seven games in Russia. As a result, as unpopular as this statement may seem, I do not believe that we should be unduly proud of England’s World Cup performance.