After nearly a quarter-century living in England and covering the national team for much of that time, I can tell you that this run to the semifinal feels different. (In a good way, I hasten to add, though obviously that does not mean they will win Euro 2020 because, history shows, they usually do not end up with a trophy.)
Make no mistake about it, some things are the same. Few countries, at least among the “bigger” nations,” have the ability to go from ecstasy to dejection based on a single result, for example.
Win and you will hear pundits and fans — at least those who make the most noise — talk about how, deep down, England can beat anyone and how everyone with Three Lions on their shirt is “world class” or, as they like to say, “thereabouts.” Lose and they are inept no-hopers at best, a spoiled, ungrateful bunch of disinterested stains on the national character at worse.
This is not to say media and supporters in other countries do not get carried away when they excel, or turn into angry villagers with pitchforks and torches when they underperform. They certainly do; it is just that there is not normally the 180-degree turnaround from game to game.
But while that part has not changed about England, what has is a lot to do with the man leading the team, Gareth Southgate, and a little to do with the sort of players who comprise his squad. Here are five ways in which this side is different.
1. Southgate is likeable and humble and normal
England’s manager is probably more relatable than any of his seven permanent predecessors. Let’s remind ourselves that the list includes a guy who lost his job after saying he believed in reincarnation and that the disabled were being punished for sins in a former life (Glenn Hoddle), a guy who quit out of the blue in a post-game interview at Wembley (Kevin Keegan), a guy who had an affair with an Football Association employee and who was duped by a man dressed as a wealthy Sheikh (Sven Goran Eriksson), a guy who quit because the FA forced him to strip his captain of the armband (Fabio Capello) and a guy who had to leave after a single game because of an undercover sting that saw him talk about “by-passing rules” to register players (Sam Allardyce).
Now, there is context and another side to all of the above and none of it means the aforementioned were worse managers than Southgate; in fact, from a purely footballing perspective, most were arguably better. But it does mean that the current England boss has managed to avoid controversy and drama to a degree that others did not. Moreover, he has done it while being humble and earnest, traits that folks find appealing.
2. Southgate is not unduly influenced by the media
Whether it is playing Kieran Trippier at left-back (and not playing Ben Chilwell at all), sticking with Kalvin Phillips in midfield, making Raheem Sterling a fixture or starting Bukayo Saka against Germany, Southgate has made a series of decisions that most might describe as well outside popular wisdom. The same popular wisdom, that is, which compelled previous managers to shoehorn Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and, occasionally, Paul Scholes into the same midfield.
Nor does Southgate freak out when performances leave critics unsatisfied, like the 0-0 draw against Scotland or the second half against Czech Republic in the group stage, the latter of which saw England contrive to register 0.0 Expected Goals (which is frankly difficult to do).
He has a plan, he sticks to it and he knows that, while short-term he might be judged by how well his teams play (and therefore risk a media battering), long-term he will be judged by how far they advance in tournaments (and, so far, so good).
Southgate gets a basic concept that others seem to miss: Club football — with its 38-game league season — generally rewards teams that attack and play well, creating more than they concede. Tournament football, on the other hand, is a different animal, where risk-taking is discouraged.
France won at the last World Cup by essentially sitting deep, not conceding and waiting for superstars at the other end to do something special. England have not quite gone that far — and may not, given Philips is no Paul Pogba, Declan Rice is no N’Golo Kante, Sterling is no Antoine Griezmann and there is not a Kylian Mbappe in sight — but the concept is not dissimilar.
3. England’s players look like they want to be there
After most tournament disappointments in past years, the English media would run their inquests about what went wrong. This would be a familiar process. The coach’s decisions would be criticised (always) and, usually, there would be a grand theory, sometimes involving an individual scapegoat, like David Beckham in 1998 or David Seaman in 2002 or Wayne Rooney most of the time, and sometimes noting a collective dereliction of duty.
Inevitably, another of the sub-themes to come up was whether these players really wanted to wear the Three Lions and whether there were internecine rivalries that ripped the group apart. Eriksson famously remarked how players would eat and hang out with their club teammates, other managers have talked about how players felt “less protected” with England than at club level and others still noted how players felt it was a “chore,” given the environment around the national team.
And when things went awry, there was, punctual as ever, a story making its way into the national media. Maybe, if England get beaten by Denmark on Wednesday (3 p.m. ET, LIVE on ESPN), the cycle will be repeated.
I don’t think so, though, because there were none after the World Cup semifinal defeat to Croatia in 2018 and every indication is that, unlike past expeditions, there is no poison in this England camp. Credit for that goes not just to Southgate, but also to this group of players.
4. This group has the right blend of leaders and foot soldiers
There is no question that, in terms of strength in depth, particularly in attacking positions, this England is as strong as any non-French speaking team in Europe. But there is also humility to the players Southgate has entrusted most over the past few weeks. There are very few alpha male, eyes-on-me, superstar types among the regulars, compared to yesteryear.
Rice, Phillips and Jordan Pickford watch the Champions League on TV. The three Man City players are important to their club side without being indispensable, partly because of Pep Guardiola’s strong collective ethos, partly because of the talent around them. Mason Mount is not an A-lister yet. Luke Shaw plays for Man United, but has had his share of setbacks. Harry Maguire is a natural leader, but was at Hull City until the age of 24.
The one exception is Harry Kane, who has been carrying Tottenham on his back for many years, but in terms of ego and personality, he will not be mistaken for Zlatan Ibrahimovic any time soon. It is a blue-collar team for a blue-collar style of play, with plenty of talent and game-changers rotating in and out from the bench, whether it’s Jadon Sancho or Phil Foden or Jack Grealish or Saka. This is not a side built around two or three individuals — arguably, Kane apart, though even then you saw him go for long stretches with no service and he did not complain — and that makes it different.
5. Success breeds success and confidence
This also feels different for the simple reason that many of the players know what national-team success looks like. England have reached the semifinals of major tournaments just six times, with Southgate and much of this this squad having done it twice, just like Sir Alf Ramsey and Co. in 1966 and 1968.
England had gone more than 20 years without reaching the last four of a competition, before Southgate took them there in Russia. It does not mean the pressure is off, but it is not insignificant, because once a cycle begins, it is hard to slow down.
Once you have experience actually achieving something meaningful, it becomes easier to do it again. This England team does not play with swagger, but the players do seem to have a quiet confidence. And that can be even more important.
Southgate’s England have managed to break the feedback loop of drama and disappointment. Not by necessarily playing better football or by having better players — at least in terms of the ones who actually make it on to the pitch — but in the way they carry themselves and the way the environment in the camp projects beyond them.
It may not be entirely down to the manager. It may be the players. It may be the fans and the media who, after 18 months of pandemic, are just a little more chilled out and happy and wanting to highlight the positives.
It also may or may not be enough to win the Euros, but it is a darn sight different from the past.