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Football: England stride on – but how far can they go?

People can, on occasion, be a little dismissive of the standard shown by opponents of the England team and most especially so when the result is heavily in England’s favour.

It undoubtedly was just so last night as visitors Montenegro were demolished 7-0 and the gulf between the two sides was justified by the score. But was it because England were ‘that’ good, or Montenegro ‘that’ bad?

Above: Harry Kane and John Stones celebrate a goal at the last World Cup (Anton Zaitsev)

Actually to give them enormous credit, the team in red tried to play football and for the most part, did not defend deep, merely trying to stifle the game and make life difficult. Montenegro were indeed not ‘that’ bad but England were also not ‘that’ good either. True, nobody scores seven goals unless they know their business and under Gareth Southgate, England do indeed look more the part than they have done for many years. Even so, it’s also worth pointing out that goalkeeper Jordan Pickford made two outstanding saves in the first half as the Europeans gave nearly as good as they got. Only nearly however, as the home team were really quite ruthless at the other end.

And it is this that presents the conundrum for English football. Defensively speaking, the current squad does have good players but as a group, England can sometimes be lacking in the nous required the keep at bay the best that the rest of the world can offer. Despite reaching the semi-finals of the last World Cup (an event at which supporters fell in love with England again) the nation that gave the game to the world was beaten by Croatia.

That said it is also true to say that England could have been out of sight by half time of the World Cup semi-final, as they were against Montenegro. Croatia however, are no mugs and know how to go about surviving occasions like the game against England before going on to win. That wasn’t enough to see them overcome France in the final however, but they had what it took to beat England, despite their hanging on at times in the early part of the game. It was also said at the time of the World Cup that the passage to the semi-final favoured England, in that they avoided the top teams – except of course, Belgium, to whom they lost. England also lost to Belgium a second time in 2018 in the third/fourth play-off game, so ‘some’ mild criticism may have been justified. But that was limited to the fact that Gareth Southgate selected a comparatively young squad and ended the international careers of formerly well-established players in the national team set-up. In other words, embarking on a rebuilding job for England, not just as senior level but down through the ranks as well. In this, Southgate has been a little fortunate. Below the top rank, England has developed a good record at international football; teenage world cup winners and European champions. It is these players that Southgate has had the wisdom and foresight to bring into the senior team.