Harry Kane
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Fars Media Corporation

A French leave: the tale of England’s World Cup exit

This one felt different. The sense of deflation acute, yet different. At the Al-Bayt Stadium last Saturday evening England played football. They pressed, they fought and, despite not creating a plethora of chances from open play, they were arguably the better team.

This was unlike Croatia and Italy where previous iterations of Southgate’s eleven looked timid, fazed by the occasion and the quality they lined up against. This was a team of players who by-and-large were able to replicate their scintillating club form (see Messrs Saka and Bellingham) or, in the case of Harry Maguire, comfortably surpass it.

And yet it still wasn’t enough. This tricky and conniving machine assembled by engineer-in-chief Didier Deschamps continued to function immaculately in the moments that count, in those exact phases where it pays to be precise and purposeful.

France didn’t blow England away, but then they didn’t have to. They started the brighter side but only took the lead through a wickedly-struck, long-range Aurélien Tchouaméni effort. Then, as has been customary for this French team since Deschamps’ was appointed its conductor, they sat back while in front, ceding territory, possession and any discernible semblance of control over the proceedings.

To their credit England accepted this challenge, as they had to. They upped sticks and migrated towards the goal watched over by Hugo Lloris, bedding down inside the French half. From this more advanced position they enjoyed what felt like the lion share of the ball, looking a threat but one which was just about kept at arm’s-length by Les Blues’ back line, despite Harry Kane finding joy up against Upamecano.

Returning to the pitch for the second half, England continued with the same vim and vigour with which they finished the first. Saka and Foden asserted themselves more. Of the two, Arsenal’s mercurial talent was particularly impressive, tormenting poor Theo Hernandez à la Kevin Keegan dishing it out to Sir Alex all those years ago. Unfortunately, like Manchester United that season, Hernandez had the last laugh.

They had come undone against the (now ex-)world champions, there is no great shame in that

Kane converted the first penalty – a slaloming Saka was brought down under pressure from goalscorer Tchouaméni. However, aside from drawing England level, its chief consequence was to reawaken the slumbering French attack. After Adrien Rabiot and Olivier Giroud both squandered presentable chances, Antoine Griezmann laced a delicious ball into the box from the left-hand touchline which allowed Giroud, France’s all-time men’s top scorer who this time round could not miss, to powerfully nod his side back into the lead.

Yet, much like in that scene of Mikel Arteta reaching down to pick up a lightbulb in The Emirates’ home changing room, the drama was by no means over. Just two minutes and two English substitutions later Hernandez, presumably suffering from a form of Saka-induced PTSD, clattered needlessly into a fresh-legged Mount resulting in the second all-Tottenham 12-yard showdown of the evening.

You wanted no one else to take it – Kane. He’s sure-fire, surer than sure-fire, the surest of fires a nation thought holding their breath for the second time that half. Then, agony – and the sound of editors across the country licking their lips at the thought of composing the next day’s frontpage headline of perennial England penalty woe.

Bellingham’s impressive leadership skills at such a young age shone through as he immediately ran to console and then gee up his captain, although the other eight outfield players in white could’ve done with a similar inspirational pep talk. A sucker-punched England proceeded to huff and puff until full time came to confirm their fate. England: 2022 quarterfinalists, and nothing more.

Again, England did not play badly – at all. After the game there was a lot of talk about margins and just how fine they are in knockout football at this level, against this level of opposition. They had come undone against the (now ex-)world champions, there is no great shame in that. They were one overhit spot kick away from extra time and a couple of questionable officiating calls from perhaps even finishing the job within the full ninety. Fine margins indeed.

Declan Rice’s extra holdall may be returning in the same state in which it left for Qatar; empty. However, he – like all his teammates – can land back in the UK proud. Proud that this group of players continues to be responsible for overseeing a period where a sense of optimism and joy surrounds the national team. A glance at recent history shows such periods have effectively been non-existent.

In the days following England’s exit, talk naturally turned to Southgate’s future – his detractors moan about a trend of coming unstuck against the big boys of the footballing world. His supporters point to his strong tournament record and the respect players appear to have for him.

This one felt different; that’s because it was

Whichever side of the fence you fall on, such arguments are moot now that the FA has confirmed Southgate’s stay until at least the end of the 2024 European Championships in Germany.

However, there is a certain irony in that many of those who believe that the Southgate era has run its course – due to the overly sensible and stodgy style of football played – will praise the work of Deschamps, whose steady-yet-cautious approach Southgate has sought to espouse to bring England similar success on the biggest stage.

Are there better tacticians, better football men out there? Undoubtedly, yes. Thomas Tuchel, Mauricio Pochettino and Zinedine Zidane are currently twiddling their thumbs unemployed, sat atop their horses on that managerial carousel. However, international football is a different beast. With far less time afforded to whip a squad into shape among the poles and cones, the qualities of empathy, transparency and communication are amplified in their importance.

And despite whatever possible shortcomings Gareth Southgate may have, these are qualities that he certainly possesses. A thinking, feeling and honest man who has served England so well since taking over from Sam Allardyce in the latter half of 2016, he absolutely deserves another shot with this group of players.

With no expected retirements on the horizon, in eighteen months’ time this squad will only be stronger and better prepared for whatever comes their way. This is a team unshackled from the baggage of the past, from the aching burden of expectation. This is a team who is no longer afraid to go toe-to-toe the big boys. This is a team which the nation can now get behind with genuine hope.

This one felt different; that’s because it was.


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