A first shootout win ensured Gareth Southgate's side reached the quarter-finals in Russia to match - or perhaps even exceed - expectations
England unshackled from penalty past as new generation continue World Cup journey
After all the talk of a new England came something genuinely new. The sense was that Tuesday’s victory over Colombia was something genuinely different: a first penalty shootout win in World Cups and a first in any competition for 22 years.
Jordan Pickford doubled up as England’s youngest tournament goalkeeper and the first since David Seaman to save a spot kick in a shootout when he denied Carlos Bacca. For the uninitiated, Seaman turns 55 in September. It has been a long time.
Marcus Rashford was not born when Spain were beaten on penalties in Euro ’96. He looked nervous when he stepped up to the spot, but while bitter experience has taught England to feel pessimistic, he converted brilliantly.
It was entirely coincidental, but nevertheless symbolic, that the lone man to see his penalty saved was Jordan Henderson, a rare survivor from the 2014 squad. Most of the others are untainted by World Cup failure.
Now England’s tournament cannot be deemed a disappointment, even if they exit to Sweden on Saturday. Their record in knockout games was so lamentable that triumphing in one, no matter how, had some significance. Colombia were overcome by a mixture of what Harry Maguire deemed “great character” and planning.
English football’s outdated notion that penalties are a lottery has been debunked. No one is guaranteed to win on them, but England ended a losing run after FA technical director Dan Ashworth introduced psychometric tests to determine which players were best suited to the responsibility.
When England beat Spain in 1996, their penalty takers were the proven quartet of Alan Shearer, David Platt, Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne. Some 22 years later, only Harry Kane of Gareth Southgate’s nominated quintet is a regular taker. England had to rely on rookies who, Kieran Trippier said, had practiced at the end of every training session.
It underlined a reason for progress. Man for man, England are not the best team in Russia. They have had to find a way of compensating. They feel among the best prepared.
It is telling that seven of their nine goals – in itself, their most in any World Cup since 1966 – have come from set-pieces. It is an enduring concern that they struggle to create chances in open play, but their prowess from dead-balls was illustrated when Colombia resorted to fouling them at Trippier’s corners.
Kane’s successful spot kick showed his Golden Boot charge is being powered by penalties. His performance was nevertheless that of a world-class striker and, if opponents keep resorting to grappling with England at set-pieces, his prowess from 12 yards may be productive again.
Colombia manager Jose Pekerman referred euphemistically to “a lot of confusion”. His side were partly culpable. With their provocation and different officiating from the erratically hapless referee Mark Geiger, England could have gone down to 10 men. The margins at this level are narrow.
The encouraging aspect is that players look like they belong. Trippier, second choice for Tottenham Hotspur little over a year ago, has been the equal of any right-back in the tournament. Remarkably, only Neymar has created more chances than the set-piece specialist.
Maguire had a couple of shaky moments in the group stages but delivered a coming-of-age display against Colombia, dominant in the air and imperious coming out of defence with the ball.
Less encouragingly, there were further indications England lack strength in depth, and suggestions it could become more necessary. Dier’s successful spot kick came after a difficult cameo. Jamie Vardy was largely ineffectual and Southgate’s switch from 3-3-2-2 to 3-4-3 stripped England of rhythm as they struggled in the early periods of extra time. They ended up with the improvised tactic of Rashford in midfield.
And reinforcements could be required against Sweden, and not merely because of the fatigue brought in after 120 minutes of football. Vardy had a groin problem, Dele Alli seemed troubled by a thigh injury on his return after missing two games and Kane looked to be struggling in extra time.
It is hard to imagine the captain sitting out a match of this magnitude, though it is likelier Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaces Alli. He has only won seven caps, but so has Pickford. Now a newcomer is the face of England’s sudden ability to cast off old habits.