England are World Cup contenders. Does it matter if they are any good? | World Cup 2022

Three games into their World Cup campaign, 11 games into 2022, 79 games into Gareth Southgate’s reign, the question remains unanswered: are England actually any good?

To which there are probably two answers. The first is simple: yes, reasonably. They finished top of their group. They were joint top-scorers alongside Spain. They kept two clean sheets. The second is a weary sigh as any discussion of England is immediately submerged by hackneyed debates about arrogance and expectation, set against a backdrop of implausible ideals of breezy attacking perfection. What even is good?

Belgium, their golden generation well and truly past it, were dreadful at this World Cup. They scored one goal, were outplayed in two of their three games and looked utterly fed up in the third. As Roberto Martínez tearfully announced he would not be staying on as manager, batting away questions from the media that ranged from gently disappointed to nakedly antagonistic, the temptation for an outsider was to wonder just what people expect.

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At the 2018 World Cup, Belgium played superbly to beat Brazil in the quarter-final before losing to the eventual champions, France. At Euro 2020, with Kevin De Bruyne struggling with injury, they lost their quarter-final to the eventual champions, Italy. If that is failure, very few people in any walk of life have ever been anything else. This may have been an extraordinarily gifted generation, but other countries have good players too.

For Southgate, then, is anything short of winning the World Cup failure? Perhaps not even that would be enough. Although Alf Ramsey, the one England manager to win something, was hailed in the moment, it wasn’t long before he was being blamed for ushering in a culture of negativity, the radicalism of his approach overlooked or unrecognised; reticent and repressed he may have been, but Ramsey was a revolutionary nonetheless.

Southgate’s record far outstrips every England coach since. He has taken England to two of the six semi-finals they have reached. He is responsible for five of their 14 victories in knockout games at major tournaments. Yet still the mood since the Euros final has been grouchy. He’s too negative. He has to take the handbrake off. He has to unleash this great glut of forwards. Why, oh why, oh why is there no place for [insert name of Premier League creator du jour here]? History will look back and ask why [delete as appropriate: Phil Foden/Marcus Rashford/Jack Grealish/Mason Mount/Bukayo Saka] was left on the bench.

Lionel Messi after Argentina reached the last 16
Lionel Messi is driving Argentina on and they face Australia in the last 16. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

It’s all nonsense, of course. Major tournaments are short. Freakish things happen. Far too much is read into individual games. For years Germany got to semis and beyond largely by dint of being German. Then, 20 years ago, they decided they actually wanted to be good at football as well. They created the dominant way of thinking about the game and yet have gone out in the group stage in the last two tournaments.

In Qatar they were so befuddled their hopes came down to Niclas Füllkrug, a journeyman striker apparently selected because he was the nearest thing anybody could find in the modern Bundesliga to Horst Hrubesch. It’s not ill luck, Hansi Flick said, it’s inability. Well, perhaps, but it was also ill luck. Should the whole Reboot be rethought for the sake of eight minutes of weirdness against Japan – in which they conceded twice – that ended up mattering only because Spain had three minutes of weirdness against Japan in which they conceded twice?

It is often asked before tournaments what would represent success. A semi-final? A quarter-final? But that’s an inadequate metric. A team can play appallingly and go deep thanks to good fortune and a kind draw. Or a team can play brilliantly, delight the world, yet be defeated early in a classic against another great side, or be undone by bad luck, or implode. Denmark of 1986, all mullets and attacking vigour, linger in the consciousness as one of the great World Cup sides; the England of 2006, a sad gloop of barely distinguishable games overshadowed by the hedonism of Baden-Baden, do not: yet that England went further in the competition.

Yet after the penalty shootout defeats of 1990, 1996 and 1998, there has been a sense that England were done with heroic failure. Give us a trophy and never mind how. In that context ‘good’ is probably too vague a term. Do England look like they could win the tournament? Perhaps, but these things are best judged in retrospect. There are exceptions – Spain in 2010, despite their opening defeat, or West Germany in 1990, maybe Brazil in 2002 if only because of the haste with which rivals fell away – but few World Cup winners have looked like champions all the way.

Four years ago, France needed their wobble against Argentina; four years before that, it took the near loss against Algeria and Jogi Löw’s contemplative run along the beach in Rio to set Germany on the path to glory; in 2006, Italy only seemed credible contenders after their two extra-time goals against Germany in the semi-final.

Croatia’s Luka Modric (right) in action against Belgium
Croatia’s manager said his team are ‘exhausted’ but Luka Modric (right) still appears full of energy. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Groups are for getting through but, for what it’s worth, England had a better group-stage record than any winner since Brazil 20 years ago. There are positive signs. Harry Maguire may have become a term of ridicule in the Ghanaian parliament but his partnership with John Stones has looked a lot more secure than was feared. Southgate has often failed to made decisive changes during games but against the USA and Wales his tweaks had a positive impact. England have often been over-reliant on Harry Kane to score goals but in Qatar they have had six different scorers, none of them Kane – who has nonetheless played a key role with three assists.

Brazil, Spain and France have all produced periods of football that seem beyond anything England are capable of, but they have all had dips as well. Argentina, fuelled almost entirely by the Lionel Messi narrative, have spluttered, only really getting going against a supine Poland. The Netherlands seem still to be waiting for Memphis Depay to recover fitness. Portugal plod on in the unmoving shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego, aided by a couple of odd penalties. Croatia, by their manager Zlatko Dalic’s assessment after the 0-0 draw against Belgium, are finally “exhausted”.

But the truth is that any of the sides in the last 16 could beat England, and England could beat any of the sides in the last 16. Given Southgate’s preference for a back three when he envisages a battle for possession, England probably haven’t even yet played the shape they will use against the best opponents.

Are they any good? It’s far too early to tell – and may be for some time.

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