Amid the national celebrations, the buoyant optimism, and the endless renditions of ‘It’s coming home’ that have swept across England over the last few days lies an uncomfortable truth: Gareth Southgate’s team haven’t actually played that well at the World Cup so far.
Of course, you must whisper it, and feel a bit of curmudgeon for even suggesting it, but, over the course of four games in Russia, England have only fleetingly impressed, and at times been quite poor.
England deserve their place in the quarter-finals, but they have reached this stage more through their character and resilience, than anything that could be described as scintillating football.
Indeed, in the last four hours at this World Cup, England have not scored from open play, and only managed to conjure up a single goal from the penalty spot.
In the opening game against Tunisia, they were at their best in the first half before they retreated after the interval and needed a late goal to secure a win, ahead of naturally enjoying themselves playing against the flimsy defences of World Cup debutants Panama.
Those wins allowed Southgate to rest eight players against Belgium, but the back-up cast did little to suggest they could force their way in to the starting line-up as they went down to a 1-0 defeat.
In the round of sixteen they needed a penalty shoot-out to get past Colombia, but for great swathes of the game, especially in the second half, they began to stutter and looked vulnerable.
However, they would not be denied, showing their character to come back from conceding a late equaliser, and again when they fell behind during the shoot-out.
Harry Kane is rightly being lauded for scoring six goals in three games, and so it appears perverse to highlight he has not played to the standard we have come to expect. It might be churlish to pick apart his goals, but it is also instructive, for they consist of three penalties, a deflection he knew nothing about, and two poacher’s efforts near the goal-line.
Again, this is not to diminish his achievements, but we know that Kane, who has only had nine shots in total so far, has barely hinted at his true potential in the tournament. The Harry Kane of the Premier League has been absent from the World Cup, one that can lead the line and score from anywhere in the 18-yard-box, and from far outside it too.
But the truth is Spurs star is living on scraps, suffering through a lack of creativity directly behind him. Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling have failed to provide him with enough chances, or even enough passes.
Over the course of the tournament, Kane has received just 24 passes from the supporting trio who are meant to serve him, forcing him to drop deeper and deeper to see more of the ball in the last game against Colombia.
Raheem Sterling’s travails have been exhaustively covered, and, so far, he has not looked the same player who scored 23 goals in all competitions for Manchester City last season.
Jesse Lingard has proved to be a crucial part of this new young side, enjoying fine moments against Tunisia and Panama, but facing stronger opponents in Colombia he had his poorest game yet.
Maybe it’s because he carrying an injury, but Dele Alli has been the biggest disappointment so far for England. He’s failed to link up effectively with his Tottenham team-mate Kane, or make any of his trademark late runs in to the penalty area, and has had just one shot at goal in the whole tournament so far.
Southgate has set up his team to harness all of their talents, but it is not really working, and they have not played with the fluidity we have come to expect.
England’s more consistent players have been further back, with Jordan Henderson’s calm and assured performances in central midfield, while John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier’s stock has soared in defence during the tournament.
England will have to step up their performance for Saturday’s quarter-final against Sweden and offer more in attack, where they have relied mainly on set-pieces and penalties for goals.
But England’s modest form should not be cause for too much concern, rather it offers hope that they still have much more to give. Southgate will know his side are building momentum, and will now look to peak over the course of what he hopes will be three more games in Russia.
If Southgate can draw more from his attacking players, England could be on the brink of history.