…and why should they take the third place play-off seriously?
As England reflect on what could have been this weekend, the song that has been the soundtrack of the last month seems all too prophetic ahead of this weekend’s finale to Russia 2018.
“Tears for heroes dressed in grey,
no plans for final day,
stay in bed, drift away.
It could have been all songs in the street,
it was nearly complete,
it was nearly so sweet…”
Now, ahead of the game nobody wants to play, Gareth Southgate and his squad have an opportunity to look forward. Starting with the third-place play off against Belgium.
One more point to prove.
Throughout England’s run to the semi-finals, Southgate has stressed the importance of his squad. After beating Sweden in the quarter-finals, he praised those who barely played in his post-match interview.
Heading into Saturday’s game, Southgate could be tempted to reward players like Jack Butland, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, and Danny Welbeck for their patience.
For these players, though, game-time could also be a final chance to prove they are worth a place in England’s long-term plans.
Similarly, rotation players including Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy, Fabian Delph, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Eric Dier will all want to make a final impression on this tournament after mixed contributions.
Also, Harry Kane will want to secure the Golden Boot, and Raheem Sterling would love a goal to silence the doubters.
This is why a third-place play-off can be a useful exercise instead of a dead-rubber – as well as provide something to show from the tournament.
England have already overcome penalty shoot-out and knock-out demons at this tournament – winning third place would be fine consolation when Southgate looks back on his summer’s work.
When Southgate does reflect on England’s undoubted progress, he will see a squad that probably went as far as it could.
If anyone should lead the Three Lions forward, though, it’s the man who quietly assembled a squad with values and tactics that show the nation that football is in good hands.
Southgate has won over the doubters with his clear plan for England, and when England face Spain in September’s Nations League tie, he won’t be loyal to his World Cup squad to deny long-term progress.
Players like Cahill, Vardy, Jones, and Ashley Young probably won’t feature in England’s long-term thinking, while other established names of recent years are unlikely to be recalled.
Daniel Sturridge, Chris Smalling, Ross Barkley and Jack Wilshire would all offer Southgate experience, but the new generation of England international may well have closed the door on returns to the national set-up.
However, others who missed out in Russia can strengthen Southgate’s side, particularly in central midfield. Expect Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana to try and find the link between midfield and attack that was arguably missing at the World Cup.
Looking further ahead, there is a good crop of young talent ready to step up.
James Tarkowski, Lewis Cook, Joe Gomez, Alfie Mawson and Luke Shaw are all capable of receiving call-ups to shake up the squad.
Phil Foden, Ryan Sessegnon, Tammy Abraham, Ademola Lookman, Jadon Sancho and Dominic Solanke all have potential to earn a place in the longer-term, too.
England’s players need game-time
As the squad returns to their clubs, Southgate will hope that managers will place more faith in their English players.
Aside from Harry Kane, none of England’s squad could consider themselves a star player for their team.
Yes, that makes them likeable, grounded and relatable, but now is time for players like Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fabian Delph, and Trent Alexander-Arnold to establish themselves as first-choice for their clubs.
It is not just domestic games that this team needs, though. England are nowhere near the finished article and need more time to adapt to a system that sometimes requires different responsibilities to club tactics.
In particular, Harry Kane’s six goals mask some average performances, while Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson were inconsistent in new roles. More time with Southgate’s coaching staff, and there is plenty of chance to improve.
A new-look England
Yes, this new-look England were handed an easier run in the knock-out stages. And missing out on the final is certainly a missed opportunity.
But nobody was demanding or expecting to win the tournament. Simply, people wanted a team to get behind and be proud of.
Southgate has proved he is the man to provide that. If he sticks to his guns, England will be in good hands whatever happens in future tournaments.
He wants England to believe they can beat the world’s best and get used to reaching semi-finals and finals. If England prepare well over the next two years, success at Euro 2020 is not out of the question.
The next three competitive games against Belgium, Spain and Croatia provide a perfect opportunity to build on Wednesday’s disappointment and test this young squad against quality teams with less pressure.
England now have a unique chance to build on their progress in Russia and give the nation hope that football might come home sooner rather than later.