World Cup 2018: How Gareth Southgate replaced England’s calamity with competence and composure

The regular calamities that have afflicted England for two decades have been blown away by competence, by composure, by intelligence - by rigour

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer in Moscow
Wednesday 11 July 2018 07:04 BST
Croatia England World Cup semi-final preview

If history repeating itself twice is farce, how do you describe the last 20 years of England at international tournaments, and how do you then appropriately describe Gareth Southgate’s excellent work in Russia? This, regardless of what happens next, is why 2018 World Cup has been such a success.

The England boss has managed to turn so much associated with England around, and that is why that phrase warrants turning around. He has actually forced history-making through repetition.

The regular calamities that have afflicted England for two decades have been blown away by competence, by composure, by intelligence - by rigour.

Consider the key aspects of that quarter-final victory over Sweden. The symbolic break in history of reaching a semi-final for the first time in 22 years was matched by the feeling that this was England’s most convincing win in open play, when they just out-manoeuvred and out-thought a properly competent team in 90 minutes.

Southgate’s side defeated Sweden through a structure we’ve seen before, a set-piece routine we’ve seen before, a Dele Alli header we’ve seen before, and Jordan Pickford brilliance we’ve seen before. This all comes from how supremely drilled this team are, how comfortable and assured it makes them in everything they do.

Many might scoff that a lot of the opposition they’ve had in this run hasn’t been convincing, but the relevant point is that better England sides have suffered against similar teams because they haven’t been so canny, so well set up. So much might have ideally fallen into place for them, but Southgate has ensured they have also been best placed to take advantage of that.

The absence of that before this World Cup has instead allowed precisely the propensity for calamity that has been a hallmark of the last 20 years, particularly the tournaments of 2000, the 2008 non-qualification, 2010, 2012, 2014 and - most lamentably but most instructively - 2016.

This World Cup will be typified by something else. And, even if there is a mishap in the semi-final or - maybe - the final, it just won’t be the same kind of issue because of the quality of the opposition, because of the success in already getting this far.

Any such problem will just be the nature of the sport. That will just be football, rather than same old England.

They’ve already broken new ground.

There is so much to like about this new England (FIFA via Getty Images)

Even this new England still have one specific challenge to overcome, one other big problem from the past.

It is not just calamity that has characterised the team’s last two decades of tournaments. That calamity has itself often stemmed from a failure to control the middle of the pitch. This is why they have suffered from another regular issue: losing to the first good - or even intelligent - side that they face. Those teams can control midfield.

Since the Belgium match was a freak, this is something that Southgate hasn’t yet faced in this World Cup, but this is also something that Croatia have in abundance. It is by far their greatest quality, and maybe their only world-class quality. The presence of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic may well give them the best midfield in the World Cup.

It may ultimately offer the biggest test of England’s best qualities.

Gareth Southgate's tactical tweaks have proven successful (Getty)

One of Southgate’s most inspired pieces of management so far, after all, has been almost literally bypassing the midfield problem.

He has greatly reduced the importance of the area through the implementation of a three-man defence and the weaponising of both pace and properly prepared set-pieces, England have ensured they are well insulated against loss of possession and can also hurt sides who prioritise possession in different ways.

There is something rather mechanical about it, a modern version of Greece 2004, but that should not be considered a criticism. It is praise.

There is something Greece 2004 about this young England side (Getty)

It’s just they haven’t faced a side as good in possession as Croatia yet. That is what Modric and Rakitic will really test.

Get through this, and history might really repeat itself. England will be in the final for just the second time ever, and one game away from their second World Cup ever. By then, description might be very difficult. It could be tough to find the right words, but there would be no doubt Southgate has found the right system.

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