England 1-1 Colombia (4-3 on pens): 16 Conclusions

Date published: Tuesday 3rd July 2018 10:13

1) Twenty-two long years. A curse that has run like an aorta through England’s recent major tournament history: Germany, Germany, Argentina, Portugal, Portugal, Italy. Each one created another raft of players who would never quite move on from the heartache. Darius Vassell, Jamie Carragher, David Batty and Ashley Cole – this one is for you. Gareth Southgate can never retake his penalty against Germany in 1996, but he damn sure has his redemption. Sorry Pizza Hut, your boy grew up.

England needed this. Colombia needed it too, but you will forgive the brief moment of patriotism and bias when I say that England needed it more. This was a new team with a new manager with a new style searching for its new dawn, but nothing lets the dark creep in yet again like yet another penalty shootout defeat. It would have set us back again, but for how long? Months? Years? Another bloody generation?

“You’ve won it once. Go out and win it again,” as Alf Ramsey famously said to his players in 1966. England almost lost it twice, but they march on. This is not the last step of the journey, but it might be the most important.

That long curse has finally been lifted. England have no more demons to fear as they head deeper into a World Cup than they have done since 2006. Football might not be coming home and might not do so for some time, but it has not been left stranded in Moscow either.

On Wednesday morning you will wake up, and for a groggy second it will feel like a normal day. And then it will hit you like a punch in the night. England have won a penalty shootout at the World Cup. Praise be.

 

2) Every fan of every club or country thinks that their team is particularly afflicted by chaos. For every ‘peak Arsenal’ there is a ‘Spursy’ or a ‘typical City’, the capability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and calamity from celebration somehow shared by everyone.

It’s time to state England’s case. This has been a chaotic World Cup, but nothing could prepare us for the lurches in emotion during the last hour of Tuesday evening’s throbbing entertainment. By the last count I make it happiness, worry, despair, sorrow, hope, resignation, acceptance, hope again and eventual glory. The type of glory that makes you kiss loved ones and pets and vow to sit, stand or crouch in exactly the same place England next face such a situation. Saturday, probably.

England have been involved in such extraordinary denouements before, but even by the usual exhausting standards this was exceptional. For a team to go behind in the penalty shootout having conceded in the last moments of normal time and still pull through to victory demonstrates remarkable resolve, determination and mental strength. Better players and stronger people have wilted in the face of such sporting adversity.

This is not a team of boys. The average age of the starting line-up was over 26. But it is a team that was brought together after England’s most disastrous tournament exit since 1950 and after the departure of a manager after one match. It is also a squad that contains 11 players with fewer than 20 international caps. One of those 11 is the penalty-saving hero; two others took and scored theirs. This really might be a new dawn.

 

3) For those of us still head over heels in love with our national football team, these are extraordinary days. Knockout matches produce unique feelings of anticipation and nerves. Supporting a club does the same, but nothing brings millions from different cities, walks of life and levels of football obsession together like a monumentally important England match. A general sickness pervades, but it is dotted with brief moments of excitement at what might – please – be coming.

Every hour or so during the day, when busy in a particularly important matter of domestic or professional affair, you forget what awaits you that evening. And then it comes rushing back with added nightmares about penalty shootouts past. How can something so wonderful cause such bloody angst? How can something that causes such angst be so wonderful?

 

4) Southgate, as expected, named the same XI that started against Tunisia. Dele Alli’s full recovery from injury forced the unfortunate Ruben Loftus-Cheek out of the team, but his time will come.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the defeat to Belgium is that neither of the two players who had a chance to push for a starting place – Danny Rose and Marcus Rashford – really convinced. Rose was at fault for Adnan Januzaj’s goal, while Rashford missed the one-on-one chance that would have seen England level.

For Colombia, the standout team news was the absence of James Rodriguez. Jose Pekerman had played it coy in the pre-match press conference, saying that James’ injury was not serious and that he would be given as much time as possible to prepare for the match.

Nobody really thought that he would make the starting team. But the team sheets did offer a surprise, James listed as ‘absent’ rather than named on the Colombia bench.

Given his stellar performance against Poland in their second group game, that will have been a huge lift to Southgate and his players. No matter how many times they insist that they’re focusing only on their own game, your opposition missing their best player and creative force gives you a boost.

 

5) Southgate promised that England would not lose their bottle in the knockout stages, but keep attacking in the same manner as their pre-tournament friendlies and group games. He stayed true to his word.

England passed out from the back rather than getting flustered and hitting it long. Even if that causes us to have kittens, they themselves have faith in the process and the process worked. Without the ball, they snapped at Colombia straight from the off as soon as they got near halfway and forced mistakes in possession.

Most impressively, the passing was quick in the final third, if not always perfect. Kane and Sterling roamed and found pockets of space in which to receive the ball. For a team that we thought would crumble when the going got tough, this was refreshing.

The only thing lacking was clear-cut chances created from open play. England’s best opportunities (Eric Dier in extra-time, Harry Maguire in the second half) came from corners again. So too did their goal, indirectly.

 

6) Colombia had their own weapon, and did not mind England pushing on. By replacing James with a more defensively-minded midfielder, Pekerman instructed his side to invite England on and then look to hit them on the counter. This was particularly true from set pieces, with wing-back Trippier generally taking them.

Juan Cuadrado and Juan Quintero stayed out wide and high up the pitch, looking to link up together on the break – a Juan-two if you will. The pair had some joy, but Radamel Falcao was left largely isolated without the man to weave together both dribblers and the striker. Only David Ospina touched the ball fewer times of any player on the pitch during the first half. Kane had 30 touches, Falcao 16.

Unfortunately for Colombia, despite enjoying the odd spell of dominant possession, they barely started playing until they had conceded the first goal. Pekerman was not tactically mastered by Southgate, but his players were bizarrely passive in and out of possession. If this was a chance eventually taken by England, it was one spurned by Colombia.

 

7) Southgate does not deserve all the credit for England’s improvement, but he does merit praise for the decision to move Kyle Walker to centre-back. If the role curbs some of Walker’s attacking ambitions, it improves England’s back three. Neither John Stones or Maguire are particularly quick, and the danger of the 3-4-3 is that it leaves slower central defenders exposed to the counter. The other two natural centre-backs in the squad are Gary Cahill and Phil Jones; neither are blessed with pace.

Three times in the first half, Colombia broke with speed through one direct ball out of defence for Cuadrado or Falcao to run onto. Three times you sensed danger, but three times Walker raced across to snuff out the danger. That’s why Southgate wanted him there.

 

8) And so to the first major talking point. Firstly, Jordan Henderson did overreact. There is no doubt about that. Wilmar Barrios caught him in the chest and then the chin, but there was insufficient contact to send the Liverpool midfielder to the floor. This was not in Neymar territory, rolling and flapping like a recently caught fish thrashing on a ship’s deck, but it was an overreaction.

But it was also worthy of a red card. As FIFA’s laws state:

‘A player, substitute or substituted player is sent off if he commits violent conduct. A player is guilty of violent conduct if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball.’

Now you can interpret that as you wish, but any headbutt when the ball is not even in play must surely meet the definition. Can it really make any difference if Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006 was issued with more force? If you push your head forward into your opponent, you get sent off. We have seen that precedent established time and time again.

 

9) This has been a tournament of penalties for England, and with Colombia’s growing physicality it was hardly any surprise that England’s goal came via the same route. Carlos Sanchez didn’t wrestle Kane to the ground, but he did stop England’s centre forward from getting to the ball by blocking him. Sanchez had no eye on the ball, and can have no complaints.

We have to talk about the subsequent behaviour of the Colombian players, because it was bordering on disgraceful. Not only did they hound referee Mark Geiger as they argued against the decision, but they did so to delay the taking of the penalty. Worst of all, at least three players took the chance to scuff the penalty spot. Heroically, Pekerman chose to blame England for all unpleasant incidents. Bold.

For Kane to wait for a full three minutes after the award of the penalty and yet still convert his spot-kick takes some incredible mental fortitude, but more on him later. If you couldn’t watch at home – and join the list – imagine how Kane felt with the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

 

10) I hate to go on about refereeing, but needs must here. Geiger might well be an excellent official (although those who watch MLS regularly say the opposite), but a FIFA referee at the World Cup must have the strength of personality to deal with rising tensions.

Geiger did anything but. He wilted under pressure. Every decision given against Colombia was met with three, four or five players surrounding the referee and screaming in his face. Why does he not have the remit to book them all? And if he does have the remit, why didn’t he act on it?

 

11) Not that Colombia were the only team guilty of bad behaviour. All England needed to do was steer clear of the histrionics and play their own game, but too many were guilty of losing their heads at silly times. Perhaps that is the inevitable result of a side inexperienced in international football, but lessons must be learned.

Firstly, Henderson was lucky to not get a second yellow or even a straight red for his own silliness off the ball, before Maguire dived in the penalty area. Lingard was booked for hacking at Sanchez’s ankles, and even Raheem Sterling got involved in some nonsense – although he was barged by a Colombia staff member at half-time. You could sense that the tide was turning as England got dragged into the dark arts.

 

12) It’s easy to say in glorious hindsight that the introduction of Dier changed the course of the match, and it’s true. He looked insecure in possession, but also unsure of where to be positionally, neither pressing Colombia in possession nor acting as an effective enough defensive shield.

Just as important as Dier’s poor display is what it meant for England’s mentality. It sent a message that Southgate’s side had given up their attacking intentions, and were happy to sit back and guard their slim advantage. As we have seen so often, that only invites the opposition to throw numbers forward. Immediately, Colombia began to attack with intent. They finally realised that if they actually tried to play they could get at England.

And yet blaming Southgate for that decision is incredibly harsh. It is very easy to tell a manager not to try and tighten up the defence with 20 minutes left and a 1-0 lead, but imagine if he had replaced like-for-like and England had been caught out in open play. Veteran managers of 30 years would have made the same change. It is not Southgate’s fault.

 

13) England almost did hold on, and it took a moment of freak football to haul Colombia level. Despite the semi-constant pressure on England’s goal, they had limited the opposition to half-chances. Mateus Uribe’s shot from 30 yards was a desperate act.

It was also a stupendous one, sending the ball toward Pickford’s top corner at speed and with bend. It was a miracle save, Pickford showing breathtaking athleticism to change which hand he led with and yet somehow still get a touch on the ball. Thibaut Courtois – who accused Pickford of being too small in the aftermath of the defeat to Belgium – might want to reconsider his snarky assessment.

Pickford did not deserve to concede from the subsequent set piece, such was his brilliance, but football is no meritocracy. Yerry Mina had already scored two headed goals in this World Cup, and his third came via Kieran Trippier’s head and the crossbar. The defender was gutted not to have stopped the shot.

 

14) As England’s players sank to the turf, the bleak future suddenly seemed mapped out. They were noticeably broken in the first half of extra-time, second best across the pitch as Colombia sensed that they could win the tie before their opponent had stood back up off the canvas.

It was nothing to do with physical fatigue either, because England did respond after the break in extra-time. A group of players had simply been touched by the fear, and could not believe that victory had been snatched away. How could they possibly deal with penalties? Well…

 

15) I want to take a minute to praise Kane, comfortably England’s best player against Colombia. It might seem a strange thing to say about a player with over 100 Premier League goals and the top scorer in this tournament, but this felt like the night when Kane stepped up to a higher plane. When all others might have lost their heads and be forgiven for doing so, Kane kept his.

His hold-up play was truly magnificent, in the face of rough treatment, physical strain and regularly being outnumbered. Time and time again he protected the ball and drew a foul, or held on long enough to bring a teammate into play. This is the role of a selfless striker, relieving the pressure as useful as a shot on target.

Even when he was clearly labouring after sustaining a knock, Kane merely dropped deeper and played a midfield role to equal effect. He was the right choice to be England’s captain because he is the perfect embodiment of this team – desperate to succeed and unafraid to get dirty doing so. England might not have a team packed with world-class players, but they have the best all-round centre forward in the world on current form.

 

16) And so to Sweden. It might feel like England played and won an entire tournament on Tuesday evening, but there are more hurdles to jump. When you get a chance such as this, why not dream higher and bigger? England will need to play better again against a team who only played for 90 minutes, and extra energy reserves will certainly be required.

But that is for another day. For now, as we watch Ian Wright in tears and Maguire leading England’s fans in serenading victory songs as we try and quell the swell of excited pride in an attempt to get some sleep, think only of the present. These nights don’t come along often, and may not come again. Drink every last drop of them while you can.

Daniel Storey

 

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