A year which started with a win, ended with a win. In between victories over the Netherlands and Croatia, there were many other positives for England. In the process of reaching the final four of the 2018 World Cup and winning their UEFA Nations League group, they played some excellent football.
The players which manager Gareth Southgate selected, all embraced every opportunity which they received to play for their country. Although it was largely a batch of young players which represented England, their performances were consistently good. The faith which Southgate placed in youth gave him a squad for the 2018 World Cup which had an average age of just 26 years and 18 days.
Among the young players to establish themselves as regulars in Southgate’s first 11 were Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, Jesse Lingard and Kieran Trippier. The quartet quickly gained experience at international level to fulfil key positions for their country. They were a huge credit to themselves with their performances. Those were disciplined, mature and tactically adept as they each fitted well into Southgate’s 3 – 5 – 2 formation.
Rather than experiment with different systems, Southgate stayed loyal to the same one, which brought a good level of continuity to his team. The opposition against which England initially tested themselves in the spring of 2018 were the Netherlands and Italy. A 1 – 0 win over the former and a 1 – 1 draw with the latter were modest results with teams which did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
In the weeks which led up to the competition, England beat both Nigeria – 2 – 1 – and Costa Rica – 2 – 0 – to continue to build their confidence. That soared because of wins over Tunisia – 2 – 1 – and Panama – 6 – 1, which secured their place in the last 16. Their final group stage game against Belgium, which they lost 1 – 0, was used by Southgate to give some of his reserves the chance to play.
The determination, mental strength and togetherness of the English group was evident as they beat a robust Columbian side on penalties. A combination of heroics from Pickford and composure from Eric Dier helped to set – up a quarter final with Sweden. Once again it was England’s proficiency from set pieces which made the difference as they won 2 – 0 courtesy of headed goals from Dele Alli and Maguire.
An entire nation of supporters had united behind England because of the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness of their performances. Although they lacked the clinical edge to overcome Croatia, which defeated them 2 – 1, they had produced their best result at a World Cup since 1990. A fourth – place finish was well deserved, as Southgate and his players had their supporters believing that glory was possible.
With the excitement of England’s World Cup campaign over, they were forced to take a reality check. Evident in a 2 – 1 defeat to Spain at Wembley in their opening UEFA Nations League game was a lack of creativity. Suddenly three consecutive defeats in competitive games left Southgate with a great deal to contemplate but he responded superbly well.
Instead of panicking to change his formation, he stuck with a 3 – 5 – 2 formation and the same players, except for introducing Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho. The pair helped England create several chances against Croatia in a game which ended a goalless. Buoyed by their performance, they improved further to beat Spain 3 – 2. It had been over 36 months since Raheem Sterling had last scored an international goal but he ended his drought in fine style with a brace.
Since Spain lost 3 – 2 to Croatia, a 2 – 1 victory against the same opponents ensured that England finished top of their UEFA Nations League group to qualify for the semi – finals of the inaugural edition of the competition. It has been embraced whole – heartedly by Southgate and his players, all of whom emerge with great credit from 2018. The year has many, many highlights for England. The emergence of young players, connection with supporters, results against sides ranked in the top 10 of the world, progress in major tournaments and general collective improvement.
There are plenty of positives within 2018 for England.