France are worthy world champions, their 4-2 victory over Croatia demonstrating that, over the course of the tournament, they had the best team.
Did they however, have the best players? The two are not necessarily inclusive but any team with those such as Pogba, Griezmann, Varane and Mbappe in their ranks will test anybody, as will Croatia with Modric, Manduczik, Rakitic and Perisic.
With the exception of Mbappe, primarily due to his young age (just 19), all seven of the others have extensive European experience behind them; Modric and Varane both play for Real Madrid and you don’t appear regularly for a club that becomes European Champions three times in succession unless you have something about you.
So its fair to suggest that the two finalists in Russia were the best teams and had at least eight of the world’s best players between them and are thus deserving of being the two best teams in the world at this moment in time. Where then, does that leave the team that finished third - and the team that finished fourth (out of 32, and not counting those other big nations that didn’t qualify)?
Belgium do indeed have outstanding individuals, De Bruyne and Hazard being two but they also have other very good players and most of them have been playing in the same league as those who played for what is (again, at the moment) the fourth best team in the world, England – and they all play in the English Premier league.
Therein lies the conundrum – of those eight players mentioned above for France and Croatia, only one of them plays in England; Paul Pogba. Croatia’s Luka Modric used to, but his time at Tottenham Hotspur can be looked upon as a stepping stone to greater things elsewhere, in Spain.
This is England’s problem; as manager Gareth Southgate pointed out, ‘We finished in the top four, deservedly in this tournament, helped by the draw. But we’re not a top-four team yet. And we know that.’
Southgate has proved himself to be an astute manager at World Cup level and, despite getting the job by default, is probably the best national team manager that England have had since Sir Bobby Robson in 1990, who also took England to the semi-final of that year’s World Cup, and Sir Alf Ramsey, in 1966. He of course, won it but no other England team manager has matched any of the three.
So how does Southgate turn what is essentially a young, inexperienced team into not only a top-four one but one that can actually win something? Before answering that, one ought to point out that England were a mere 20 minutes from being France’s opponents in the final and were by far the better team against Croatia in the first half of their semi-final. Trippier’s free-kick was subliminal in giving England the lead and as Croatia’s manager conceded, the game could have been won by half-time – Croatia would have had no complaint at being 0-4 behind after 45 minutes. So why weren’t they? There weren’t because England missed the chances they created and if you don’t score, you don’t win. Croatia had the know-how to get back in the game and then win it and that is what Gareth Southgate has to do; instil in England’s players the extra knowledge that they lacked in Russia.
He can’t however, do it by himself. We come back to Belgium again and the numbers of their players playing in England. Players like De Bruyne, Hazard, Kompany and Lukaku are more than worth their places in their teams but how many of the multitude that now form most of the Premier League’s squads are the same? Not many. One of the more crass remarks made by a Premier League official (I forget who it was now, so anonymous was he) was that England should look for their players in the Championship, what used to be called the second division. Leaving aside the practicality of such players not having experience of top-level football, let’s take a look at Championship squads; like the Premier League, clubs are packed to the rafters with foreigners. Wolverhampton Wanderers were the winners last season, managed by a foreigner, and their first choice players are all foreign, as they are throughout the division and just as they are in the Premier League.
Yet England are the World Champions already at Under 20 and Under 17 level, with the Under 19s being the defending European Champions. Obviously therefore, we do have talented young players who are capable of great things - but, and it is the biggest but all that counts for nothing if those players are not selected to play for the first team of their club sides and especially those who are competing for the top four places, and thus participation in the European Champions League.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is one of England’s rising young stars and is with Chelsea. Yet he spent last season on loan to Crystal Palace. With the greatest respect to a fine club with football history however, Palace are not going to be playing for a place in the Champions League and despite having their moments, are not going to be competing to win the Premier League either. Loftus-Cheek has to be playing and playing regularly for Chelsea. If he can’t do that, then he must leave Chelsea and find a top club that will play him – like Jaydon Sanchez has. Despite the name, Sanchez is English, young, talented and plays for Borussia Dortmund - in Germany…because he couldn’t get enough playing time at Manchester City.
English football sold its soul some years ago to the lure of big money and the result is that English football is now owned overall by foreigners, mainly managed by foreigners and primarily played by foreigners. A curiosity to this however, is that if one looks back in time, to when England still could call on players good enough, the national team still failed to be one of the world’s best. This was because of the head-in-the-sand attitude of those who ran the game and its worth reminding ourselves that England didn’t deign to enter the first World Cup as the FA considered beneath them to do so. Yet in terms of how the game is coached, England has, finally, dragged itself out of the past and into the here and now, hence success at youth level nationally.
It is not however, enough. Clubs must be told, made, forced, coerced, or however one wishes to put it, into not spending thousands on teenage boys from other countries at the expense of our own and they must be told, made, forced, coerced or whatever, into playing a majority of their first team games with players born, brought up, raised and educated in England (and if by the way, as has been alleged, some of those players have a bad attitude, then change it. Coach them properly and teach them the right way). Look at the players being signed this summer by top clubs; most are still foreign. Not English.
By all means, bring to the game here those players from other countries that really are good, players from whom our own can learn good habits. Those players however, must be exceptional. The rest, all those rather average players, that bring little or nothing to the game in England, must depart - and soon.
Only then will England stand a chance of being winners.
© Kevan James 2018