There has been one question that has been plaguing my mind, ever since I took a liking to the English national football team right from the early 2000s.
What is with England and the constant failure to deliver in big matches, especially knock out games?
Be it the quarter-final exit at the hands of a talented Brazil side in 2002 World Cup, to Portugal knocking them out on penalties in the 2006 World Cup and more recently, a determined Croatian side getting the better of the Three Lions in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, albeit in extra time.
And now, the No.1 ranked side in world football, Belgium sent England out of the Nations League on Sunday night at an empty Den Dreef arena in Leuven, Belgium
When it comes to international tournaments, in times of winning at all costs to march forward, what goes wrong with this English team?
Is it performance or is it more of a mindset issue or is it a coaching failure? Let’s try and dissect the mystery!
Is performance an area of concern?
In an ideal world, if a team in any sport performs to its fullest, they should invariably end up the best.
Having said this, in the real world that is just idealistic thinking, ask England Manager Gareth Southgate and he will definitely second this.
In the game on Sunday night, despite Belgium being the 2-0 winners, England had the better performance and created more chances, especially in the second half, thanks to Aston Villa attacking midfielder, Jack Grealish, who started his first competitive fixture.
But if only performance mattered then England should have won this game, and truth be told in my opinion, the Three Lions attacked even more than they did in the 2-1 victory over the Red Devils in the first fixture at Wembley last month.
Obviously, that’s not the case and for me performance is not that big an area of concern for the Three Lions with the bigger apprehension being what I will cover in my next section.
Change of mindset is definitely required
England are a hugely talented side with performances to show with victories over Iceland and Belgium in Round 1 of the Nations League and Wales and Ireland in friendlies, but when the moment of truth arrives to progress to the next round, the mindset to win doesn’t work in tandem with the physical performances.
This has been a problem since eternity for the Three Lions and a mental shift to believe reaching the next round is possible first, followed by winning international tournaments is definitely the need of the hour.
It has to be tiny steps, with a belief system that has already begun by doing a decent job to reach the 2018 World Cup semifinal and similarly the 2018-19 Nations League semi-finals.
Next up should be a march forward to try and reach finals of tournaments and then gradually believe that winning tournaments is possible.
Most definitely a mental shift to winning in moments of truth, will make England soar much like it is for South Africa in cricket when it comes to knockout phases in big tournaments.
If one would purely focus on numbers then Gareth Southgate is not the most encouraging coach to manage the Three Lions, with England recording its 10th defeat in 48 matches he has been in charge.
Sven-Göran Eriksson managed this not so encouraging milestone only after 67 games and Roy Hodgson only faced eight defeats in 56 games.
Also, the current English manager’s win percentage of 58.3 is still behind the other two in question, who have it better with the Swede, Eriksson boasting a win percentage of 59.7 and the Englishman Hodgson 58.9.
Having said this, the success of a manager cannot only be judged with numbers, but should also include the kind of values and the mindset he imbibes in the team.
Under Gareth Southgate, England have reached the semi-finals of two major tournaments, the 2018 World Cup and the 2018-19 Nations League, and this is no mean feat, considering the last time the Three Lions reached a major semi-final was way back in Euro 96 which was contested in their own backyard.
He has definitely improved the intent of the English team to do better in big tournaments and in my humble opinion, he should be given a long rope to continue to instil more depth and values and the will to progress for the Three Lions.
The attacking intent is there and so is the performance, and with a slight tweak in mindset, the Euro 2020, which will now be contested in 2021 thanks to COVID 19, could be their moment of reckoning.
Till then we just need to believe!