England vs Czech Republic: Gareth Southgate’s men have come so far as a team – time now to take the next step
Around St George’s Park and Wembley, there has been a nuanced but notable shift. England players and coaches are now seriously aiming for a major trophy, having previously only “dreamed” of such feats. Airy eternal hopes have transformed into hard present goals, backed up by recent facts. Aspiration has been replaced by conviction.
That is what is unique about the Euro 2020 cycle, as it starts today.
For the first time since 1998, and maybe the only other time since the early 1970s, England go into a new campaign able to seriously believe they are among the favourites. And that is for once based on much more than hype or jingoism, of the type that has so often blighted the side in the past.
That point, fittingly, shouldn’t be taken lightly. Because it is also based on even more than just getting to a semi-final for the first time since 1996.
If the history of so many underwhelming past tournaments constantly hangs over England, constantly diluting any genuine hope because of the consistent experience of disappointment, there is a telling little story there.
The so-called “golden generation” were probably subject to more hype than other English side, and thereby responsible for so much more delusion-disrupting disappointment, and many accounts have it that some of those players became a little perturbed by how often they were unfavourably compared to the 2018 team during the Russia World Cup. A common remark was how “easy” their successors had it in getting to a semi-final, in contrast to the many seismic quarter-finals they faced around the turn of the millennium.
Even if that is the case, and Gareth Southgate’s England lacked victory against genuinely difficult opposition in Russia, what is really relevant now is what followed.
Southgate’s side went and got those wins, while doing so much more.
They came from behind to beat the Croatia team that eliminated them from the 2018 World Cup, and came back from defeat to Spain to convincingly beat them away from home.
There is blue-chip credibility to that.
It also reflects another strong reason why England can reasonably see themselves as favourites. They are in a much better place, as a team, than so many of Euro 2020’s most talented squads.
Spain themselves are recovering but still only playing in spells, with that in itself revealing why they finished behind England in the Nations League, and can be considered behind England in general. Germany are meanwhile in disarray, with a lot of doubt about what they can do next. Belgium are as talented of England, of course, but what they did next – a collapse in the Nations League – pointed at some gaps that have never gone away under Roberto Martinez. Italy are right now barely worth mentioning. So many other upwardly mobile sides, meanwhile, do not have Southgate’s depth of talent.
The world champions France obviously do have that depth of talent, and even more than England in players like Kylian Mbappe, but in Europe that is about it right now.
It is also why this is so different to the recent past. Through so many recent decades, any hype around England was mostly based on the club profile of the players rather than what they were as a team.
No longer. It is based on tangible achievement, and proper progress.
Just as they followed that semi-final appearance with serious wins, Southgate has followed what went well in Russia with further development of the system. He has had the bravery to discard a three-at-the-back formation that worked once, and would have been so easy to sit on, for something that works better now.
And that was even before he had all the parts. Declan Rice’s declaration solves what was perhaps the solitary problem in the team: that hole in the middle of the pitch that cost them dear against Croatia.
Rice has the range of movement and – crucially – the range of passing from that area that England have badly lacked.
Watching the extent of his influence on the team should be one of the most exciting elements of the Euro 2020 qualifying opener against Czech Republic, and something else only adding to the excitement around the team. Add to that so much other young talent like Jadon Sancho.
Things really do look very bright.
Things can of course look very different from one end of a campaign to the next. You only have to look at past champions. Spain were still in a dysfunctional disarray of their own in early 2007, just a year before they embarked on the most impressive spell of success the international game has ever seen. A year is a long time in football, and even longer in the drawn-out nature of international football. Teams can drastically change.
But this is just another reason for confidence. England no longer have to look at other countries, and be any way concerned about what they do.
The overhaul of the country’s talent production has ensured Southgate has one of the most talented squads in the world, and add to that one of the youngest. There is a lot of room to grow, to mature, and this while so many of the players are already leaders in their club team.
There is a lot more than hype. There is tangible ground-breaking achievement, there is progress, there is a talent, and there is a working system.
It is why the story of this England team has been constant evolution and improvement, and so far always taking the next step.
It is why the story of this campaign should be about aiming to take the final step, and win a major trophy.
That, at last, is based on so much more than hype or dreams. It is a highly realistic objective.