As another World Cup qualifying campaign draws to an uninspiring close, England fans are faced with a hard truth: the national side just aren’t all that good anymore.
International competition has been a constant source of disappointment in recent years, but this time around, there can be no heightened expectations.
After successive 1-0 victories against Slovenia and Lithuania—the latter of whom are ranked 120th in the world—fans are left reflecting on yet another round of qualifiers which flattered to deceive.
Except, this time, no one’s fooled.
No longer can an unbeaten run mask the crux of the issue. This England team is the worst we have seen in a long time.
Weight of expectation
Following Thursday’s 1-0 victory against Slovenia at Wembley—sealed by Harry Kane’s 94th minute goal—The Independent published an article titled ‘Last night was that common night of national realisation: England really aren’t very good at football’.
In the think-piece, Jack Pitt-Brooke argues for a recurring theme, ‘In the months leading up to any tournament there is always a moment of national realisation that the England team is not as good as we hoped. Tonight was that night’.
He then goes on to an analysis of the chronology of this ‘common’ national epiphany: ‘It usually hits in the early June friendlies. Those games are meant to fine-tune the squad, but in fact confront the country with the fact that no combination of players will be able to make any impact on the tournament. This year, though, the process has been mercifully sped up. There can be no 2018 let-down after this’.
He’s right, England aren’t very good at football, and no combination of players can win the World Cup, so there can be no disappointment. But this isn’t a common moment in the build-up to an international tournament, it’s a very new beast.
In fact, this is the first major competition in years that England will enter without a great weight of expectation on their shoulders. In the past, particularly since the nineties and the turn of the millennium, England have had the players that could go the distance in a World Cup. Yet they have been unable to transform that wealth of talent on paper into results on the field of play.
The ‘common night of national realisation’ is, in actuality, an unprecedented one: England’s world-beaters have vanished.
Decline and fall
Speaking before the game against Lithuania, Gareth Southgate admitted that England are without any ‘big players’.
Responding to an acknowledgement put to him that the nation’s current squad contains past Premier League and Champions League winners, Southgate stated that no player is big until they’ve cut their teeth in the big tournaments. ‘Well, are they big players until they win? We’re talking about ‘big players’ because of transfer fees or because they are playing in the Champions League’.
‘But when we are in semi-finals, finals and winning trophies’, he continues, ‘then I think we’re big players. Until that point, for me, we have it all to prove…We can’t consider ourselves to be big players. Big players are Piqué, Ramos, Busquets, Kroos, Khedira, Neuer – I could go on. That’s what big players are’.
England down to one lion
More than anything, this shows why Southgate had cut such a dejected figure in the footage plastered all over Sky Sports and ITV in the build-up to the game against Lithuania – pace Kane, he is without a world-class player at his disposal.
Furthermore, for potential stars such as Kane to thrive, they need creators, and England are without any.
Adam Bate’s brilliant article on Sky Sports supports this notion, citing the Premier League’s current assist-making extraordinaires and how the absence of their ilk harms strikers in the national side: ‘Both of Raheem Sterling’s goals in Manchester City’s 5-0 win over Crystal Palace featured a forward pass from the brilliant Kevin De Bruyne to open up the defence. The Belgian has created the most chances in the Premier League this season’.
The rest of his analysis is damning: ‘Next on that list is David Silva and further down the problem becomes apparent. Arsenal’s top creator? Mesut Ozil. Tottenham’s is Eriksen and Manchester United’s is Henrikh Mkhitaryan. For Chelsea it is Cesc Fabregas, while Philippe Coutinho has created more chances than any other Liverpool player despite not being involved until mid-September’.
No help for Harry
If anything highlights how far England have fallen in recent years, it is certainly the dearth of creative talent that Southgate has available for selection. Of the top 12 players with the all-time most assists in the Premier League, 7 are English: Wayne Rooney (104), Steven Gerrard (99), Frank Lampard (96), James Milner (76), Ashley Young (61), Stewart Downing (60), Gareth Barry (60).
Last season, the only English player in the top 10 most assists table was Everton’s Ross Barkley with 8.
With the exception of Barkley, these players have either retired or are no longer good enough for national team selection. Perhaps all that is left is to wish the best of luck to England’s strikers next summer. In Russia, they might well find themselves feeding on scraps, as the saying goes.
No more heroes
In the 1990s and 2000s, England were entering World Cups with world-class stars. The kind of players who were the first names on the team sheet, who practically picked themselves: Scholes, Beckham, Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, Shearer, Owen, Lampard, Gerrard, Gascoigne, to name but a few.
Back then, England expected. On paper, the side was more than capable of winning an international tournament. When they let us down, it hurt. The kind of unbearable hurt that comes with seeing potential unfulfilled.
Now, we’re all out of hope. If they get to the quarter-finals, the team is achieving highly. Manage to get to the semis and they’ve outdone all expectation. If they reach the final, the Vatican will be contacted about the necessary conditions needed to call an event a miracle.
Who knows, maybe the absence of hope will be the kick up the arse the players need. Just as the class of ’92 stuck their middle fingers up to Alan Hansen’s infamous hubris – ‘You’ll never win anything with kids’.
In actuality, most England fans will be pleased if they make it past the group stage. If not, then at least we can spend the rest of the tournament watching better football on our screens.