In the aftermath of England’s final game of the World Cup, Gareth Southgate confirmed what had just been apparent on the pitch. His tired side had just been outplayed by a far hungrier, sharper Belgium team, sending England home with no medals to show for all their obvious progress on and off the pitch.
“We finished in the top four, deservedly in this tournament, helped by the draw,” Southgate said. “But we're not a top four team yet. And we know that.”
It was the fairest assessment yet of the England campaign, of its obvious success and over-achievement, but also of the reasons not to get over-excited. There has been plenty of hype around this England campaign, and Southgate’s tenure so far, but he is having none of it.
Of course Southgate is proud of what he has achieved so far. Let no-one say that the gains of this summer are somehow illusory, or flukey, or a brief change in temperature that will be long forgotten when the new season sets in. Southgate has built a popular, unified, effective England team, that tries to play the right way and which can perform under pressure. That might sound basic, or like an obvious first step. But Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello and Steve McClaren could never do it.
Southgate has provided England with something they had been seeking for years, but never quite been brave enough to deliver: a fresh start. To leave behind established players, to focus on the youngsters, knowing that it might hit England’s winning this time, but might increase them a few tournaments down the line. Who knows whether it will work out that way, at Euro 2020, or Qatar 2022, but to even try that represents a rare push for long-sightedness and genuine ambition, in an industry that is short on both.
“The last seven weeks have been exactly what we hoped they would be, in terms of the improvement in the team, the experiences for the younger group of players,” Southgate said. “They will be buoyed by the positive experiences, of which there have been many. The defeats have been hugely important for our development as well.”
As Southgate always reminds people whenever he has the chance, you can read too much into results, especially in tournament football. This is a low-scoring game, with fine margins at the mercy of random events. There is not even a 38-game season over which variance can be evened out. Contingent little events - Kane’s winner against Tunisia, Marcus Rashford not equalising against Belgium, Jordan Pickford saving from Carlos Bacca - sway outcomes far more decisively than in a regular season.
That is why measuring progress on results alone is so difficult. Southgate himself admitted that England were fortunate to end up in the half of the draw that they were in. And it would be difficult to argue that had England drawn 1-1 with Belgium in Kaliningrad, and won their group, that they would have got to the semi-finals. Not with Brazil to play in the quarter-finals before then. England are not “a top four team”, as Southgate conceded.
But then contingency and chance are the whole point of an international tournament. No-one pretends it is a perfect merit test. And being able to get over the line in knock-out games, even in the gentle side of the draw, is an achievement in itself. No-one with any familiarity with England’s history can turn their nose up at winning a penalty shootout in a World Cup last-16, especially given they missed first. Or at the nerveless execution of a quarter-final against a stubborn Sweden side, with none of the angsty drama that usually marks England’s biggest games.
The way that England won those games, as well as their two group stage wins, points to a team who have been freed up from some of the fear of failure of the past. That is a point Southgate always emphasised, and his work with the team psychologist was focused on continuing to play their best even while situations went against them. A generous interpretation of Kane’s late winner against Tunisia - when England looked to have run out of ideas - is that they were rewarded for sticking to their plan and not rushing their execution.
That goal was maybe England’s most important of the tournament, not least because it is worth wondering what would have happened had they only drawn 1-1 in their first game. But it was more important because it pointed to how important set-pieces would be over the course of England’s World Cup. Of their 12 goals, England scored four from corners, three from penalties and two from free-kicks. That is testament to the clever planning of Allan Russell, the sharp, practiced execution of Kane, Kieran Trippier, Ashley Young and the rest, and the players attacking the ball with their heads. It represents a rare moment of intelligence and efficiency from England, realising how important set pieces are in tournaments and doing everything they can to maximise that particular skill. England teams are not always this switched on.
But all that set-piece success has inevitably led to questions about open play, creativity, midfield and all the questions that predate Southgate by generations. And for all the good work he has done, transforming the England team, this is where it becomes clear that he cannot transform English football. Not by himself, not yet.
Because England can still not dominate and control a high-level game in midfield against a good side. That was the simple message of Croatia, when England tried to run Croatia off the pitch but ended exhausting themselves in the process. The midfield balance was certainly dynamic, but sometimes you need less energy and a bit more nuance to your approach. That lack of midfield class explains why England were eventually beaten by Croatia and why they struggle to create chances in open play. For their clubs Kane and Raheem Sterling have Christian Eriksen, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne feeding them. No English midfielder comes close.
That is why Southgate says that his team are not of the top bracket, not yet. And that is why he is so pleased to test his team out against Croatia and Spain this autumn. He knows that the gap between England and the pinnacle is still big, bigger than it might look on a World Cup wallchart, bigger than might be suggested by the fact England were 22 minutes away from being in Sunday’s final.
Whether England will get there for Euro 2020 or Qatar 2022, no-one can know. As Southgate says, tournaments are defined by randomness. But simply by stating the problems, starting the hard work, giving the team the re-boot that it needed, he has earned himself more credit, more popularity and more time than any England coach this generation. He has won himself the space to take his next shot at the top.