Among the many pleasing aspects to England’s 3-0 victory over Wales was the sense of progress.
Since the 1960s only Alf Ramsey, Bobby Robson and Sven-Goran Eriksson have led England in three different tournaments. Ramsey peaked in his first, the 1966 World Cup, Robson’s reign was bookended with near-misses at Mexico 86 and Italia 90 but included a horrible performance at the 1988 Euros. Eriksson’s England looked a busted flush when losing to Portugal in the 2006 World Cup.
By contrast Southgate is on track to improve with each showing. Another group stage has been navigated in an increasingly familiar pattern, one easy win, one momentum-killer and one test passed.
What is most striking is how in each genre of game England have improved under Southgate. Equally important, there are plenty examples in modern England history of comparable failures.
The easy win
In 2018 England faced presumed whipping boys Panama. They held Belgium to a goalless draw until half time in their opening game and eventually lost 3-0, so England beating them 6-1 at the height of their set piece powers was a happy surprise.
At the last Euros a forgettable 1-0 win against the Czech Republic was a significantly less glossy score, and a far worse performance. England allowed the game to drift but never looked in serious danger. Let us extend this category to include reasonably straightforward wins.
Here in Qatar, an Iran side who gave Wales and the USA trouble were swept away, England scoring six again but conceded twice. Limited opponents, but Southgate’s team played some of their most thrilling football in a tournament since the Euro 96 4-1 against the Netherlands. To these eyes, that game far eclipsed the Panama and Czech performances.
IN CONTRAST: England 2 Trinidad and Tobago 0, 2006, 83 painful minutes before Steven Gerrard broke deadlock against a World Cup novelty team
A feature of all three Southgate tournaments, but each has been followed by a win. In 2018 it was the final group stage game against Belgium, although with both teams through and wholesale changes made, a 1-0 defeat did not seem too damaging, beyond curbing momentum after Panama.
Two 0-0 draws have played a similar role in the tournaments since. Scotland at a half-full Wembley matched the depressing weather. Four days ago there was another Friday night mood-ruiner vs USA, but that result seems credible now the opponents are through to the knockouts (unlike Scotland).
Tough to argue that one limp attacking performance is better than another, but result-wise the USA draw eclipses the point against Scotland.
IN CONTRAST: Two entire group stages which were enormously deflating. In 2010, when a talented but aging England only managed draws against USA and Algeria then snuck past Slovenia. Then home in six days in 2014, after Roy Hodgson’s side lost to Italy and Uruguay. Worth remembering these nadirs when complaining about dull draws in group-topping years.
The test passed
Tunisia were not terrifying first opponents at Russia in 2018, but the game presented a test of mettle. Ferjani Sassi’s penalty cancelled out Harry Kane’s opener and the impotent toil which followed was familiar to anyone who has watched England at tournaments this millennium. A Kane header from a corner in the 91st minute suggested a team made of stronger stuff.
An imposing start to Euro 2020/21, against World Cup finalists Croatia at Wembley. England edged a tight game with a care in possession which had eluded them for a generation and held on for a 1-0 win, impeccable tournament football.
This time it was Tuesday night’s bounce-back victory over Wales, a riposte from Southgate to critics of his deployment of attacking talent. Switching Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford positionally after half-time led to arguably the best ever performances in an England shirt for both, the goals followed.
IN CONTRAST: Take your pick of similar tests failed. Pegged back late to draw with Russia at Euro 2016, in similar circumstances to the Tunisia 2018 game. Folded against half-decent opposition in 2014 (Uruguay, Italy), could not even see off Sweden in 2006, drawing 2-2.
Senegal look analogous to Colombia in 2018 or Denmark in 2021 - capable opponents, a step up in performance required from the group stage, but ultimately should be beatable. Progress here would be winning in regulation time without the need for a penalty shoot-out or a dubiously-awarded penalty.
Then in the quarter-finals it seems likely to be France, with a small chance of Argentina if something unexpected happens in Group C on Wednesday night and they finish runners-up in their group.
Far harder, but England must take heart that two of the major monkeys have already been shaken from their back under Southgate. They won a penalty shoot-out against Colombia in 2018 and beat an elite (in name and history if not current ability) team in Germany at Wembley last year.
Clearly they would be underdogs against France or, perhaps later, Brazil but beyond those two England should fancy themselves against anyone here.
Given these incremental improvements and knowing that Southgate’s first tournament ended at the semi-finals, and his second as beaten finalists, it may be time to break out the bunting.