The year was 2018. Pubs were full, Man City had just lifted the Premier League and the weather was glorious. The England national team travelled to St. Petersburg, their base for the 2018 World Cup.
The nation, by now used to disappointment and underachievement on the international stage, held a small glimmer of optimism as new boss Gareth Southgate took charge of the most promising England team since the ‘Golden Generation’ team of the early 2000s. There was the right blend of youth and experience, with certified world-class talent in the starting line-up.
Southgate’s managerial career had not amounted to much up until that point unless you are a fan of relegation and the U21 Euros. As a relative unknown entity, his early results had impressed. A 3-0 dismantling of Scotland and World Cup qualification was the least of expectations as the FA announced his four-year contract would not be terminated, even if England failed to escape the group-stages.
For the first time since the London Olympics, some semblance of National unity was achieved. Even the tabloids could not break the spirit as Baddiel, Skinner & the Lightning Seeds’ Three Lions rang out from Transit vans and country estates across the land.
Yet, despite the joint-2nd best finish ever at a World Cup, there was still an inclination that England should have done better. Three losses out of seven matches, blowing a 1-0 lead against an aging Croatian team, and narrowly beating Tunisia and a poor Columbia side seemed lacklustre for a team that contained the Golden Boot winner for the tournament in Harry Kane.
Next followed the inaugural Nations League, the competition which would make Southgate only the second England manager to win a medal in an international tournament after Alf Ramsey. Another blown lead in a semi-final to the Netherlands and a penalty win over Switzerland earned England bronze.
This illusion of success is what gives the backdrop to the most recent international fixtures.
First up was a Friendly against Wales in what was easily the best England performance of the three. Jack Grealish, Danny Ings, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all impressed, as Kalvin Phillips looked at ease in his new role.
Despite the defensive formation, there were still some promising moments from the squad. Taking advantage of set-pieces and wide areas as Wales failed to contain England’s overlapping wing backs, the 3-0 win at Wembley could have been even more comfortable.
It was a worrying prospect that the starting line-up would be entirely rotated for the following competitive fixture.
The win against Belgium could almost be seen as a miracle. Not only were Belgium going into the fixture as FIFA’s number one ranked team, but they were also the team England lost to twice in the 2018 World Cup.
The miraculous element is not in the stature of the two teams, as England’s squad is arguably as strong as Belgium’s, it’s the fact they won with only three attacking players on the pitch and could have conceded three in the first fifteen minutes alone. It is a relief Belgium's golden generations underperform as often as England's.
Southgate’s insistence on starting three recognised Right-Backs and two Central Defensive Midfielders in front of three Centre Backs left many puzzled. More puzzling was the omission of Jack Grealish. Having impressed against Wales as well as for Villa in the league, with only three creative players seemingly allowed in Southgate-ball, it was alarming that he would overlook Grealish’s form and the omission did nothing to dispel the rumours he has some sort of vendetta against Grealish.
With a few new faces, Denmark was next up in the Nations League.
Alarmingly, the same defensive formation emerged. Harry Maguire was sent-off in the first half for two reckless challenges in the Danish half after England were caught in possession, arguably a symptom of having two many defenders on the field and requiring them to join the attack.
A dubious Danish penalty gave them the lead not long before half-time, as Schmeichel made an excellent save to deny Mount shortly after. England’s dreams of an equaliser were over as Coady’s header was well blocked by Kjær in added time.
Following the full-time whistle Reece James was shown a red card for dissent, a sign of England’s frustrations.
This last round of international fixtures calls into question Southgate’s ability as England manager, eight months away from the European Championships and two years away from the Qatar World Cup.
England currently has some of the most promising attacking players in its history, from promising prospects such as Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden to established world class talent such as Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane but a system that barely accommodates any of them.
The inability to pick an exciting team and tactics which suit this new brand of highly technical and ultra-fit footballer is worrying. Even more so at a time where club football at all levels are embracing the explosive attacking game which was previously only reserved for elite teams. Both Barrow and Harrogate, promoted from the National League last season, were praised for their adventurous attacking play.
The Bielsa vs Guardiola masterclass days before the international break showed just how crucial an established philosophy is in modern football.
The time is running out for England to establish a winning side and tactic before June arrives. If nothing changes in England’s set up by November’s fixtures, football will, once again, not be coming home next summer.