More of the same won’t keep England in World Cup

England will have to improve if they are to beat a top-level opponent

Well, that was fun. After two hours of vivid, gruelling knockout football at the Spartak Stadium, England’s penalty shootout defeat of Colombia felt at times like an overload of the senses. A quarter-final with Sweden in Samara awaits on Saturday.

England have finally won on penalties, led by the man who previously lost on penalties. And while football may not be coming home just yet, it is certainly loosening up, making friendly overtures, liking your social media posts and generally seeming a lot more fun than the rather cold and distant tournament summers of the last decade.

There is an issue of balance here. On Wednesday morning Guardian writer Hadley Freeman tweeted that an American friend had compared the endearing optimism of England fans to "one of those crazy people who goes on a good date and immediately starts planning the wedding".

But then in its role as the most important of all the unimportant things sport exists to create these moments, to hit the big, fat, wet emotional high note, to tell the kind of stories football likes to tell about itself. Whatever happens from here, England will always have Moscow and a night of agreeably loopy sporting catharsis.


Plus this was unarguable progress. Jose Pekerman’s Colombia were always likely to provide England’s best XI with a more layered test than Tunisia and the Sunday seconds of Panama. Beneath the veneer of well-run details this England team has felt at times a bit like an expert branding exercise. The more they talked about systems and DNA, the more they seemed to have a system and some DNA. The more they were said to be mature, studious and likeable the more they seemed to be mature and studious and likeable.

But were they any good? In Moscow England were stretched and bruised in new ways. For periods in the second half the Colombian players were drawn to the referee the way the best Barcelona teams are drawn to the ball, surrounding him, intercepting him, everyone wanting a touch. Perhaps it’s time to create a new stat for times such as these: touches of the ref’s arm, words in his ear, imaginary cards brandished (successful and unsuccessful).

After England's penalty was awarded Colombia's players waved their arms and stamped around in a group on top of the penalty spot for two long minutes. Harry Kane stepped back, re-spotted it. Waited a bit. Floated his kick down the middle. This was super-ballsy stuff, Kane as leader, as a big player, as the daddy in this team. Yes, this was big daddy Kane.

Overall Southgate’s team were neither too nice or too nasty. Instead they offered a reflection of the manager’s best qualities, an agreeably cold-blooded kind of stubbornness. On the other hand this was also a 1-1 draw against a depleted Colombia.

To really take their World Cup deep England will have to beat a top-level opponent at some stage. Delight in their progress will not disguise the fact there are improvements required, areas in which England have been below their best; and strengths that other teams will now prepare for.

And so on to the bad news. England have scored one goal, a penalty kick, in their last four hours of World Cup football. Winning a shootout feels good. But it is rarely a sign that all is well. Since France 98 just two of 14 teams to progress on penalties have gone on to win their next game.

Southgate will know all of this. He will also be keen to re-cast a little what has been a notably fixed-gear style in attack. Here’s a good stat. Kane has had six shots on target at Russia 2018. All six have ended in the net. Include off-target efforts and Kane’s tally rises to a paltry nine. This is winning football pared down to a state of absolute minimalism.

Pep Guardiola drew a little heat last season by calling Spurs “the Harry Kane team”, but England are in effect the Harry Kane Nation, their captain not just the best No 9, but the best No 10 too, best crosser, best passer near goal and one really consistent hope of registering in the goals column.

Only Belgium have scored more times than England. Only Russia have run further. No other team still in at Russia 2018 has lost the ball fewer times in their own half. But Belgium, Brazil, Uruguay and Sweden have all had more shots, while England have had only three efforts at goal from the left side of the pitch all tournament, compared to 16 for Belgium and 14 for Brazil. Get this too: England have had just one shot on target from outside the area in open play, joint last with Australia.

The numbers confirm what the eye can see. Passing carefully, running a lot, being cute at set pieces and trusting in Harry have been enough so far. England have got to the last eight driving a car with three wheels. Why should they do things differently now?

The answer lies in the fact they will be required at some stage to beat a high-functioning team. To do so they will need more in particular from the attacking midfield trio.

Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli moved well and defended with skill against Colombia. Sterling often found the right spaces, just not necessarily at the right time. Early on he troubled Yerry Mina so often he ended up with Mina piggybacking around in a circle on his shoulders, like a friendly, sleepy bear being carried off to bed.

But Brazil, France, Belgium and Croatia all have greater verve in these midfield areas, with more successful dribbles and runs into the penalty area so far. Alli has had one shot at goal. Sterling has one, Lingard two. An improvement will surely be key against the better teams, as will choosing just the right moment to make a forward run alongside or beyond the lone spearhead.

England have nothing to lose now, no promises to keep, no demons to slay. They are in credit, a team flying above the clouds. The challenge is simply to find some extra gears, a greater collectivism in attack to match the defensive will. The opportunity is there to take a more nuanced, more layered fight to Sweden in the heat of Samara this weekend. - Guardian