England winning the World Cup in 1966 created false expectations that we are up there with the best of them and only capable of losing to our peers.
Only yer Germanys, yer Brazils, yer Italys (how many of them are there?), half of yer Argentinas and approximately two-thirds of yer Spains should be able to beat England, at a push. Everybody else is a bunch of savages we should destroy instantly. But who are our peers?
England rarely beat the world’s best. At tournaments, we rarely beat anyone. England are flawed by the post-66 clamour that we should be stuffing all but everyone. Our obsession with gung-ho football leaves us open to be pillaged on the highest stages, because we’re open to being picked off by teams that have sussed the path to success.
Top-level tournament football is not about smashing your opponent, it’s about doing enough to keep going through. Sides enjoying stellar periods will always have it in them to dish out a 4-0, but many nations – from the talented to the limited – know there is no shame in keeping games tight and winning them 1-0 with a set piece.
England can do this too. England can win games 1-0, with a goal from Harry Kane or Dele Alli. It’s okay. It’s allowed. Greece and Portugal both became European champions on very tight margins. They didn’t win a smaller trophy, or get marked down, for failing to wallop everyone.
England’s two World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia were expected to be sound wins. History will now forever show that we won them 4-0 and 2-1 respectively, but during those games people were quick to be bored and to lose their mind.
Despite classic dismissive expectations that England should be 2-0 up against Malta inside ten minutes, because they’re probably all postmen, Malta were entitled to defend. The half-time score of 0-0 was predictably greeted like an insult.
But even the weakest teams can compete for a while. It’s in the last 20 minutes that limited sides wane physically and the last 10 minutes when stronger sides can cause damage. England duly scored three times after the 86th minute and ramped up a 1-0 win to 4-0.
Slovakia scored first at Wembley and, again, expectations were that we shouldn’t be losing to yer Slovakias. But they’re entitled to try. England could comfortably have lost, but showed great heart and character to force a late 2-1 win.
England might not be great or up there with all of the Germanys that beat Norway 6-0, but perhaps we’re not as bad as some think. Gareth Southgate might not inspire the masses, but his first job is to inspire his players. Quietly but progressively, Southgate is developing his squad.
England don’t have to be brilliant, or smash all-comers from the off. They need to learn to do enough to get the right result by the end of the game and keep going through. England need to get tournament-savvy, then we might just surprise many in Russia and be competitive at next summer’s World Cup.