England find themselves in the unfamiliar position of high expectations after reaching World Cup semi-finals
Uefa Nations League: Gareth Southgate's England challenge: to ensure a rise is not followed by a fall
It can be different to forge a sequel to a story of surprise. When the endearing element of the original relied on the capacity to shock, any follow-up can be burdened by expectations. For the first time in at least 22, and arguably 28, years England face a new problem. For the first time this millennium, they begin a new cycle with the focus not on failure, but success. They have not had to deal with calls for clearouts, with post-mortems, with regime change.
Instead, they face a Spain side in a position they may recognise, fresh from an underwhelming World Cup, with a new manager, in Luis Enrique, and a new look. They are diminished by the international retirements of Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and David Silva. Their squad features three defenders with a grand total of two caps and a trio of midfielders with two more between them. Experimentation will be a theme, but not for England.
Perhaps it says something about society or social media, about impatience, a lack of loyalty and an inability to acknowledge achievements, that there was criticism in some quarters for Gareth Southgate’s decision to exclude some untried players.
Yet a meritocrat has argued they need to show more at club level. For the meantime, the idea of Ryan Sessegnon, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and co is more enticing than the reality. In any case, the manager has been England’s quiet radical. While Jamie Vardy’s international retirement seemed to come against his wishes, Gary Cahill probably jumped before he was pushed and Ashley Young went from first-choice left-back at the World Cup to out of the squad altogether. His demotion showed Southgate’s ruthless streak. Young was England’s oldest player in Russia, and a stopgap may be displaced by Luke Shaw for country as well as club. The fact that Jordan Henderson, a veteran of 44 internationals, is the most capped player in the party, indicates England have the age profile to flourish in Euro 2020.
Uefa Nations League - a welcome addition or calendar clutter?
What they have to display is the quality. England showed a capacity to rise to the occasion to navigate a comparatively simple path to the semi-finals in Russia but afterwards Southgate was frank enough to admit they were “not a top-four team yet”, which defeats to Croatia and Belgium highlighted. Spain probably possess more talent than England. Southgate’s side progressed in part because of teamwork. That may have been fractured had he discarded too many.
His is a balancing act, looking for improvement in some respects, stability in others. Past England teams have struggled to build on fine foundations. They have neither forged dynasties nor become regular presences in the latter stages of tournaments. The only time that England reached semi-finals in successive competitions was under Alf Ramsey and the first side he named after the 1966 World Cup final, who beat Northern Ireland, had a distinctly familiar look: it was the 11 who were immortalised by their Wembley win over West Germany.
After the 1990 World Cup, Graham Taylor’s initial selection was notable for the downgrading of Chris Waddle, World Cup semi-final starter and substitute against Hungary a few weeks later, which set the tone for the marginalisation of a major talent in favour of more prosaic, and younger, players. After Euro ’96, Glenn Hoddle began with a new foundation, 3-5-2, and debuts for the contrasting pair of David Beckham and Andy Hinchcliffe. Taylor’s England effected a swift and undignified descent into mediocrity; Hoddle’s exited the 1998 World Cup at the last 16 but had the potential to fare better.
Southgate’s England at least have continuity at the helm, in terms of ideas and, while Raheem Sterling is injured, in the principal personnel. It is borrowing from the Ramsey model as England, having done something uncharacteristic by overachieving, aim to do something unusual by ensuring a rise is not followed by a fall.