Euphoria reigns in the world of England as bunting blows softly in the warm summer’s breeze.
Optimism, hope, and the omnipresent smell of stale Carling fill the air like never before.
Gareth Southgate has done the impossible and England have won a World Cup penalty shoot-out for the first time in history.
With Sweden shaping up as the Three Lions’ next opponent, the English can continue to feel quietly – or, typically, quite loudly – confident in their chances of throwing a homecoming party on July 15th.
However, dispatching Colombia wasn’t easy and Southgate’s men had to work through a gruelling 120 minutes of football before concluding their victory with an Eric Dier conversion and stunning save from the now deified Jordan Pickford.
Despite the struggle to overcome José Pékerman’s Los Cafeteros, England showed promise.
While focus was quite clearly lost going into extra time, it brimmed from the sidelines. Gareth Southgate despite relatively little managerial experience, showed himself to be a sharp, intricate master of pragmatism.
Having said that, England have been set up to play with a distinctive style at this tournament. As has been bemoaned from time immemorial by balding, fat, middle aged blokes in the broadsheets, the side needed to create a ‘brand’ of football like Brazil, Spain or Germany.
Southgate has implemented a system into his squad and established fast, attacking football that plays from the back and uses the channels to feed a prolific Harry Kane as his main tactical approach.
The game plan is clear but, as flagged by Gary Neville, what’s there to fall back upon?
Because this system isn’t designed to last 120 minutes or survive in the face of an onslaught of pressure, England wavered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they failed to capitalise on their dominance in normal time and let chances go to waste as some players seemed half a yard or so off the pace.
It’s the finest of margins that count in a World Cup.
When Colombia’s Yerry Mina netted in the 93rd minute, trouble was forecast for a significant period ahead. England’s young side dropped their concentration for only a matter of moments and were punished in the cruelest possible way.
But, Southgate had been in control all along. On paper, he did everything right from his well-trodden technical area.
Taking a look at his four substitutions, we can see a level of thought that runs deep and highlights the 47-year-old’s ability to rearrange his England team to manipulate the game. If you’ll allow us…
81 minutes: Eric Dier for Dele Alli
England’s inability to soak up pressure had become glaringly obvious approaching the final whistle.
Unable to implement their go-to controlled offensive, the Three Lions seemed shaky and disoriented as Colombia laid a late siege upon Jordan Pickford’s 18-yard box.
Harry Kane had begun to play absurdly deep to support his flagging side and England lost all focus and direction on any subsequent, almost desperate, counter attacks.
Southgate removed a fairly muted Dele Alli from play and instead brought on Eric Dier. Technically speaking, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate swap at the time and, if anything, it should have come sooner. Kane could roam forward again as his Spurs teammate plugged the centre of the park to nullify Colombian attacks.
If it hadn’t been for Mina’s bouncing equaliser, this would have appeared the perfect defensive substitution. Shame on you, Yerry Mina.
88 minutes: Jamie Vardy for Raheem Sterling
It wasn’t always the simplest, more defensive changes that Gareth Southgate made, however, and Jamie Vardy’s arrival on the scene when clinging on to a one goal lead may have seemed a bizarre decision.
However, with England stuck on the back foot and Plan A flying out of the window, grabbing counter attacks with both hands became of paramount importance.
By sending a probing, pesky Vardy – an out and out striker – to linger around Colombia’s defensive line, the South Americans were restrained in their throwing forward of kitchen sinks.
Their side were forced into leaving enough men back to deal with the ever-present threat of a counter attack involving Vardy’s fresh legs and clinical, incisive incursions.
Their last-minute heart-breaker resulting from a corner was the outcome of desperation and Colombia actually sent nine men into the box for their successful corner. Even Jamie Vardy can’t stop a gungho surge for victory.
102 minutes: Danny Rose for Ashley Young
Ashley Young may well have been one of England’s designated penalty takers, but having those on the pitch does sweet FA if penalties aren’t reached in the first place.
With England struggling and Colombia’s pressure building, this change allowed the team to switch from their usual defensive back three with Young and Trippier out wide as attacking full-backs to a far more solid back five.
Kyle Walker could still fill in at right-back should Trippier be called into action going forward but, with an onslaught seemingly indefinite, the pair were kept deep inside their own half and England’s back line became well-manned and, ultimately, impenetrable.
Rose’s arrival ensured those in the back five were all seasoned defenders and switched Southgate’s now trademark 3-5-2 to exactly what was needed: 5-3-2 with Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier being two of the midfield three.
Southgate had remarkably turned his offensive unit (the starting lineup including Sterling, Kane, Young, Lingard, Alli and Trippier all in attacking roles) into a packed, tight-knit defence with just two substitutions.
113 minutes: Marcus Rashford for Kyle Walker
By this point, Kyle Walker was dead and buried. The 28-year-old couldn’t carry on and England were too close to the dreaded shootout to make any more defensive changes.
Southgate’s solid and concentrated defence had to weather the next 15 minutes without the Manchester City star as penalty takers became the order of the day.
Having already established a defensive core, however, Southgate was able to make this switch and ensure he had the right men playing when duty called. England still had a back four and two sturdy midfielders who could protect the English net with competent assuredness.
Rashford’s arrival proved to be a fortunate one as the Manchester United lad netted with conviction and Southgate, after a lot of pain, was rewarded for his decisions. His relief was apparent for all to see.
It may have been close, but England have a technically gifted gaffer who has got things right for this tournament. Can anyone fault his choices so far with any conviction?
England struggled on Tuesday because Colombia played a dirty game. They were unlucky with decisions and missed some key chances.
But there’s nothing a manager can do to affect any of this. It’s testament to Southgate’s cool head and assured control that his side didn’t react in the face of relentless aggravation or let things slip when the pressure hit fever pitch.
They won’t be easy, but Sweden will now seem a much more favourable opponent for the Three Lions compared with Colombia.
If Southgate gets things right again – and we’d wager that he will – England can continue their ballsy daring to dream with just a little more gusto.