As Group G favourites, Belgium, set out their statement of intent with the 5-2 thumping of Tunisia on Saturday, hushed whispers turned to bold statements: “this is the team to beat.”
Then comes the morning after the night before. The Three Lions went up against an undisciplined Panama side who had been swept aside by Belgium just days before. It took the Englishmen 8 minutes to score and they cruised into the break 5-0, all but victors.
It was simply exquisite from Gareth Southgate’s men. The win smashing records left right and center: it was England’s biggest ever victory at a World Cup. After 2 games, this is already their joint second-highest goalscoring World Cup campaign- the only time they scored more was when they lifted the trophy in 1966!
Moreover, they are only the fifth team in World Cup history to score 5 goals before half time and this is England’s joint best start to a World Cup along with their appearances at Spain 1982 and Germany 2006.
There is a wind in the sails and an unprecedented excitement about this England side. From inflatable unicorn races in the team pool at their training facility to Jesse Lingard juggling on the sideline as the game drew to an end, there is just something different this year.
Let’s not forget that this is a team under immense scrutiny, a side that has the sizeable task of winning the hearts of a nation back after a downward spiral over the course of the last 8 years.
South Africa 2010 marked the beginning of the descent, crashing out 4-1 to Germany in the round of 16. Four year later, the Three Lions were kept firmly in their cages as they failed to get out of their group at Brazil 2014 followed just two years later by a disastrous night in France as the Englishmen were sent back across the Channel by Iceland.
What has brought such a noticeable shift in the attitudes and performances of an underachieving England side? My answer: Gareth Southgate.
I have written before of my skepticism of his appointment. I wasn’t convinced he had it in him. “Great.” I jeered, “more of the same.” But I cannot attribute such a drastic change to anyone, or anything, other than the Gaffer.
He has instilled an unprecedented confidence and belief in his players and given them a freedom to perform at the level we are so used to seeing week in, week out. More than the players he has around him, he is turning disillusioned hearts into passionate believers.
With many countrymen still hurting from a past of heartbreak and disappointment, Gareth Southgate has provided what no English manager has been able to in over a decade: belief.
More Than A One Trick Pony
In addition, I would argue that there is a sincere belief that a goal can come from anywhere.
We have seen how the likes of Messi, Neymar and even Ronaldo have been hunted in packs and taken out of a game completely and with Harry Kane becoming only the third England player to score a hat trick at a World Cup and the first player since 1974 to score more than once in the opening two games, the same just doesn’t look likely for England.
Kane has scored 5 goals in 2 games but two goals from centre back John Stones, a worldy from Jesse Lingard not to mention the chaos runs around the back and balls over the top have caused. You take one player out and another takes his place. They are somewhat unmarkable.
I add a word of caution: the same is also true of Belgium. The fluidity of that Lukaku/Hazard/Mertens trio is scary proven by their collective 7 goals in 2 games. The two sides are almost identical in ability and belief.
The real test of both sides will be on Thursday when they meet each other for the group decider. We have no need to be convinced of either side’s attacking ability scoring a combined 16 goals but neither side has faced any real defensive threat and how each side handles the challenge will give a significant look into either the frailty or ability of their all-roundedness.
This Three Lions side is the first to live up to its name playing with a passion, belief and enjoyment that has not been seen since Germany ‘06 and I have every faith that they are going to bring it home!