No more managing expectations. If England cannot negotiate their way past a mediocre Colombia they should be labelled failures.
There’s been a refreshing change to the way Gareth Southgate’s players have interacted with the media. They’re more open, talkative and friendly, and all buy into their manager’s call to express themselves, both on the pitch and off it. Obviously, this is a good thing – a tonic to stale press conference gone by. Yet this doesn’t mean England are entitled to avoid hard truths.
It’s all gone a bit too well
Southgate’s impaired shoulder aside, England’s experience at Russia has not been hampered by the sort of scandal that we have come to expect. It’s all gone a bit too well. Indeed, the only furore emerged when England’s line-up against Panama was leaked by the press, with fans instantly jumping on the back of the mainstream media and accusing them of preventing football’s inevitable return home. This incident presented a major insight into the growing culture around the national side. There is a very real danger that all this softy-softy, congratulatory cheerleading will blur the competitive edge.
There is, of course, a responsibility to care for player’s mental health and to not viciously attack them. On the flipside, however, is a duty to cut through the patriotic spin and tell it how it is. And if the Three Lions do not roar against the Colombians, they should be rightly branded as failures.
An opportunity to make history
Southgate’s men have a genuine opportunity to make history. Ending up in the more favourable side of the draw – and don’t let anyone tell you different – is clearly an advantage, even more so given Spain’s shock exit to Russia on penalties. Should they progress into the next round, they have another winnable tie against Sweden or Switzerland. Then, they’re into the semi-finals where anything can happen.
This a moment to seize. England may not have a path this kind for a long, long time. Before we become too caught up in the permutations of the draw, there is the match against Colombia to consider. “On paper” has become a tired cliché, but England do have a squad with greater balance, talent and tactical sophistication than their opponents on Tuesday night. Couple this with the respective performances of each side thus far, and Colombia’s laboured and unconvincing progression is trumped by the vitality and energy of England’s play. This is to do no disrespect to Colombia, who do possess some dangerous players apart from Bayern Munich’s James Rodriguez and Monaco’s Radamel Falcao.
Really, though, England should win this game. They must play with the same verve and imagination that saw them waltz past Panama and dominate Tunisia, for if they do, they will surely penetrate a vulnerable Colombian back-line. A point that seems to have gone unnoticed as Argentina, Portugal, Spain and Germany all boarded flights departing Russia, is that England now boast the best striker left in the competition. Harry Kane must surely be regarded as the most potent forward – yes, he’s better than Romelu Lukaku and no, Neymar isn’t a striker.
England will win only by attacking
The creative licence afforded to the likes of Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli should not be rescinded, but rather encouraged to a greater extent. England won’t beat Colombia by producing a defensive master-class – they simply don’t have the defenders capable – but they will by playing with enterprise and craft. If adventure and attacking intent is the mantra, they will have no problems. Thus, the only real obstacle between England and the quarter-finals is precisely that: being unable to confront the match with an offensive approach.
“They won’t express themselves fully if all their thinking about is failure!”
That’s not entirely the media’s fault. At some point, the players must take collective responsibility. Southgate has started to the change the psychology, but just how far along the evolutionary track that is, we will soon find out.
So please, no more cushioned reaction. These are a group of greatly talented footballers with a brilliant opportunity. They have the potential, but they must turn it into reality. They’ll forever be ruining ‘what if’ should they fail. It starts against Colombia and an inability to produce should be criticised to its full measure.