And then it was over. In an instant, the football gods turned their backs on a group of young men who exceeded expectations and generations of fans under the age of 35 now know the pain of losing a World Cup semi-final.
Being England, you dared to dream, especially after Kieran Trippier’s astonishing free-kick five minutes into the game. Missed chances ultimately cost England dearly and I suspect in moments of quiet contemplation, Gareth Southgate will rue substituting Raheem Sterling in the same way Sir Alf did with Bobby Charlton. The impact the Manchester City striker carries with the XI showed in his absence.
The woodwork and naivety were their undoing and a vastly improved performance from Croatia from the second half onwards. Not for them any sign of exhaustion at playing 120 minutes and penalty shootouts in the past week. They deserve the plaudits for recovering from those exertions to reach the final. Will it be a step too far?
Dare I say it though, beyond the obvious of missing out on a World Cup final, there should be no regrets. They achieved a seemingly impossible task and made a nation – bar idiots who resent any show of pride in the nation due to their liberal angst – fall back in love with the England team.
No abject exit, no boorish behaviour lambasting fans who don’t appreciate crap performances 5000 miles from home. No ‘Golden Generation’ riven by club-fuelled fissures. Just 23 men with one aim: winning the World Cup through their best efforts.
Some will go on to better things, justifying high price tags; others return to the clubs with their heads held high. All will suffer the weekly vitriol of the Premier League.
But for six weeks, they did themselves, families, friends and a nation proud.
Walk Out The Door
To the delight of politicians and attention-deficient ‘celebrities’ around the globe, England’s failure was a moment to revel in. Top notch trolling from those whose own countrymen swilled around the pan of ignominy previously.
I particularly liked the US writer I’d never previously heard of who cited Germany (group stage), Australia (group stage), and of course, the United States of Trump (didn’t even bloody qualify from that group – ha!) as having the winning attitude England lacked.
It was a wretched summer for Danny Welbeck. He may feature in Saturday’s playoff against Belgium, but eleven minutes at the finals when it mattered was hardly worth getting on the plane for. That’s indicative of where his career is right now. At club level, he’s a bit-part player. He’s another who wanted to play centrally but found his skill set isn’t suited to it.
Now, with twelve months on his contract, he has a decision to make. Does he stay put, sitting on Arsenal’s bench or does he drop down a club level – Wolves, Everton, Southampton – and get regular football. Theo did that and hasn’t revived his England career but I dare say he’s more fulfilled as a person. I don’t know really, perhaps he curls up in a ball every day after training, sobbing bitter tears at his treatment. I don’t think so though.
The summer has been good so far for Arsenal. Unai Emery has the additions he wants before the selling cycle begins with only Aaron Ramsey’s situation having the potential to disrupt that. Nobody knows how negotiations are faring bar those involved so it’s hard to gauge if we’ll reach a point before 9th August when selling is a reality. The new management structure will be hard-pushed to sell that notion without a replacement lined up.
Two Become One
Like Welbeck, the future of other squad members is entwined with Ramsey’s. The assumption is that Emery will field a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ramsey as one of the ‘2’. No change beyond the pressing game the Spaniard prefers. Alongside Torreira is my guess but you have Xhaka, Elneny and Maitland-Niles who can also play in the ‘2’, albeit with different styles.
I’d hazard a guess that Elneny is the most vulnerable to being sold. Xhaka just signed a new deal while AMN is highly thought of. That’s not to say the Egyptian isn’t, but he is very much third or fourth in line for the second midfield role.
Yet if Ramsey goes with no obvious replacement signed, the dynamic changes. We become a team where the ‘2’ are deep-lying and the attacking quartet are freed of their overt defensive shackles. While that’s an interesting prospect, you can see a gap easily forming between the attack and midfield. It’s why I believe Ramsey’s sale will only come about with a replacement identified. His box-to-box style bridges that gap, which is something we need.
These are interesting times. It’s widely accepted Ospina is leaving for Boca and Campbell is attracting Lazio’s attention. Not much else beyond speculative punts on Mustafi to Juventus, a move as baffling as it is trying to work out where the German fits in at Arsenal now.
Who else will leave is the question with a number of players previously on loan. Akpom is the most obvious of those coming to the end of their time at the club. Those are thoughts for another day for this one is a wrap.