Stuck in an endless cycle of major tournament hope ahead of major tournament despair, England come into the 2018 World Cup with a different identity.
Led by Gareth Southgate, as well as a core of young, hugely-talented players, the side distances themselves from those that have come before them through more than just ability.
Never a nation to struggle through qualifiers, this time around was no different for England, dropping points in only two of ten qualifying matches. What did change for the Three Lions, though, was the way their football was played.
A near trademark of past squads, the equation that often produced a whole much less than the sum of its domestically decorated parts faded, and a genuine team emerged. It was England’s 6th qualifying match, a home tie against neighbors — and more importantly, rivals — Scotland, in which we first saw that team, as a 3-minute spell of play flipped things coming into stoppage time.
The late, unexpectedly expected capitulation left England 2–1 down, painted Leigh Griffiths as the 21st century’s rendition of William Wallace, and forced any English supporters dreaming of World Cup glory to reel in their loftiest-of-lofty aspirations.
Captain Harry Kane’s 93rd minute equaliser hardly reignited those hopes, but it was a show of character that had been absent too long for England. Absent when the group stage was too tall a task in 2014. And again, in 2016, when Iceland, a nation whose population stands at just three five hundredths of England’s, rallied behind what fans they did have, and came back to eliminate the overwhelming favorites.
Assuming England will make it any further in this summer’s World Cup solely because of this newfound character is premature, given the fact their toughest opponent on the path to qualfication was Slovenia, but England’s consistent growth since France 2016 is undeniable.
Dele Alli broke out (again), adding depth to his game through depth in his position. Meanwhile, further north, Raheem Sterling and John Stones joined the long list of players to be taken under Pep Guardiola’s experienced wings, before coming out as much better players. And Harry Kane, outshone only by Mohamed Salah, followed the Mancunian pair’s lead, scoring a career best 41 goals in all competitions.
The side’s stars stepping up is, of course, something of a necessity for England, and while that will remain true leading up to the tournament, any foundation for the respectable World Cup run they seek will be made up of more than stardom alone.
Southgate will place just as much faith in players who, in the past, have struggled to shine for England.
Jesse Lingard, Fabian Delph, Danny Welbeck, even the new-boys Alexander-Arnold and Loftus-Cheek — yet to truly endure the pressures of representing England — will have to answer the questions surrounding their respective selections, and pull their own weight when called upon.
Those yet to be World Cup-tested should benefit from the uncharacteristically low expectations set to be taken to Russia, but a lack of experience may not translate to a lack of achievement, as England look to end the ‘Years of hurt’ count at 52.