Gareth Southgate is clearly a genius.
Most importantly he’s a lucky genius. So lucky England now have a great chance to reach the World Cup Final despite playing in a most ordinary fashion. Ordinary might be as good as this team gets, but that might be enough given future opposition, in the next two rounds at least.
Southgate’s best decision in this World Cup was fielding a reserve team against Belgium. It was a no-brainer for me. Losing that game was the only chance England had of going all the way. Even when he loses, Southgate actually wins and that’s some skill.
For all the pride and praise he delivers in his players’ direction after games Southgate has presumably worked out he doesn’t have the creativity or wit in his squad to make goal-scoring chances for Harry Kane, his only reliable finisher, so he’s banked on set-piece prowess and so far so good.
Southgate is also smart enough to realise his defence is vulnerable to any sort of pressure so lucky for him they could well be playing two more teams who won’t come forward with any pace.
England were fortunate with their group draw, landing two of the worst teams in the entire competition. Now they need to make it count. England have only beaten two bad sides, one with a last-minute goal, so losing to Sweden in Saturday’s quarter-final would represent a failure no matter what the FA spin doctors and media cheerleaders would have you believe.
Colombia were hopeless and England still only managed to score from the penalty spot in two hours, but if ever a team deserved to be sent packing in heartbreaking fashion it was the nasty, spiteful South Americans.
They made the match unwatchable at times. They certainly made it unrefereeable. I almost felt sorry for an American official who was clearly out of his depth and not helped by the latest clown to sit in the VAR booth when a Colombian escaped with a yellow card for a first-half head butt.
Appalling player behaviour has marred this World Cup and, although Colombia were the far bigger disgrace in this game, England were far from innocent.
If a Colombian had raked an opponent’s head with a boot like John Stones did, the horribly biased ITV commentators (if you didn’t know it was a former England coach in the commentary booth you’d have assumed Glenn Hoddle was Harry Kane’s dad) would have banged on about it for hours. Instead it was barely mentioned.
England even threw in a couple of rather pathetic dives, but here we are approaching a very winnable quarter-final, although Sweden’s recent record against the likes of Holland, Italy and a group containing Germany surely makes them favourites.
But England have belief, the confidence they can win a penalty shootout, and a manager who has been transformed from the ‘man who took Middlesbrough down’ to a natty dresser with the Midas touch.