To appreciate this England team, you have to go back to one of the Three Lions’ lowest moments.
Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein, South Africa. June 27, 2010. England get demolished 4-1 by Germany in the World Cup Round of 16. Frank Lampard’s “ghost goal” might have been incorrectly ruled out, but no one could dispute that the better team went through. Germany were bold, inventive and exciting. England were slow, sluggish, and totally inept. At times it felt like they were playing different sports.
England’s starting eleven that day had an average age of 28.9. This really felt like the last roll of the dice for the so-called Golden Generation. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were both the wrong side of 30, while key figures from that era like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen had long since left the international scene. The side played a rigid 4-4-2 and didn’t have any idea how to attack beyond just launching it forward. The whole point was to stay defensively solid, but they totally failed at even the most basic aspects of defending.
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Germany, on the other hand, got everything right. You look at that team today and see so many illustrious stars. But on that day in 2010, these were largely unfamiliar names to those who don’t follow the Bundesliga. A fresh faced Thomas Muller just had his breakout season at Bayern. Bastian Schweinsteiger had just been converted from an inconsistent winger to the complete midfielder we came to admire. Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira were playing for Schalke, Werder Bremen and Stuttgart, respectively. Casual observers could be forgiven for not recognising this side as one filled with top talent. But as soon as you saw them on the pitch, the quality was obvious. This was a young team full of excitement. England were old and past it, while Germany were young and just getting started.

England's Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard (L) walk off the pitch after a 2010 World Cup second round soccer match against Germany at Free State stadium in Bloemfontein

Image credit: Reuters

We can now see that 2010 vintage Germany side as one on the start of the journey that would see them lift the World Cup four years later. Seven of the team from Bloemfontein started the final in Rio de Janeiro, and it would have been eight if Khedira hadn’t picked up an injury in the warm up. This was a group who went through multiple major tournaments together, improving all the time as they came into their prime years, and became a more complete side in the process. That 2014 World Cup win was a total validation of the reforms German football put in place at the start of the 21st century. It takes time for these things to bear fruit.
But time has a funny way of turning everything on its head. That Germany side peaked in 2014, then the core of players Joachin Low relied on began to decline. From that core of eight players to feature from 2010-14, Lahm and Miroslav Klose retired straight after the win in Brazil. Schweinsteiger continued for another two years but really shouldn’t have, as his standards began to drop significantly. By the time the 2018 World Cup came around, Khedira, Ozil and Boateng all looked as though their best football was behind them, while Neuer and Muller were in moments of poor form. The side had aged out of greatness. Their window came and went.
At the same time, you could feel something happening with England. Gareth Southgate’s side hadn’t really emerged yet in 2018, at least in terms of player quality. Of the starting line-up, the Manchester City trio of John Stones, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling had just won their first major trophy. Ashley Young, one of the few veterans, had won his fair share as a squad player at Manchester United. But otherwise, this was a team that hadn’t done a great deal in football and, crucially, had done nothing for England. That tournament gave them their first taste of really going for a trophy at international level, and gave them a set of experiences to build on.

England celebrate their shootout victory over Colombia

Image credit: Getty Images

Three years on, we can see this is still a team seemingly yet to peak. England have the youngest team in the tournament weighted by minutes played (per FBRef), along with the second youngest squad overall behind noted dark horses Turkey. This side has a lot of players who, if all goes well, will not play their best football for a few more years. Jude Bellingham (18), Bukayo Saka (19), Phil Foden (21), Jadon Sancho (21), Reece James (21), Declan Rice (22), Mason Mount (22) and Marcus Rashford (23) should all be at least aiming to improve over the next few seasons. Add injured Mason Greenwood (19) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (22), as well as a smattering of talent yet to break into the senior squad, and things look bright. They won’t all become top players, because that’s just how it is. Football, and life, can always throw setbacks at you. But when you have this much talent, sometimes you only need one or two of them to go supernova and lift all boats. England have more than enough to expect that will happen.
Southgate has clearly been planning for this. In his previous roles as Head of Elite Development then manager of the Under 21 side, he saw first hand how much the talent pipeline improved since the dark days of a decade ago. When he took the big job in 2016, he understood his role would be to slowly shepherd in a new generation of much greater ability than those he started with. He’s since tried to build a framework in which they can thrive, bringing a more relaxed atmosphere to the training camp for a closer knit group and greater sense of team identity among the players. He’s looked at the mostly attack-minded stars and tried to give them the defensive solidity they might naturally lack, starting from the back and giving a strong defensive foundation to which the blooming attacking talents will increasingly complement. There’s a structure in place and, as nice as winning on Sunday would be from an English perspective, it isn’t intended as the destination.

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“Today I want to set the whole of English football two targets”, said former FA chairman Greg Dyke back in 2013. “The first is for the England team to at least reach the semi-finals of the European Championships in 2020”. He wasn’t to know a pandemic would delay the tournament a year. But job more than done on that front, with potentially the perfect conclusion.
“And the second is for us to win the World Cup in 2022”.
In Henry Winter’s book Fifty Years of Hurt: The Story of England Football and Why We Never Stop Believing, he talks of the clock at the FA’s St. George’s Park technical centre counting down to the 2022 final, emphasising the long stated aim of winning the trophy. This target has been drilled through the organisation. Winter’s book, published in 2016, is understandably pessimistic about achieving this. The thought of England reemerging as a top side seemed almost impossible five years ago. The FA even downgraded the target that year to simply being “ready” for 2022. It just didn’t seem possible that things could improve so quickly.
And yet here we are, 18 months out from that tournament, with a young and exciting group of players heading into their first international tournament. If anything, 2022 could be too early to see this group peak. Winning a World Cup is a very difficult thing, even moreso than the European Championships. But it’s hard to look at this England side from player development to management and conclude they haven’t given themselves an excellent chance of pulling it off.
Whether England win on Sunday is down to one game of football. Anything can happen. What’s clear, though, is that the country can be optimistic about the future of this national team. For the first time in decades, it’s not arrogance to go into the next few tournaments and aim to win it.
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