England: Southgate taught us it’s okay to be optimistic

The performance left fans with a feeling of optimism not felt for a long, long time.


It’s okay to be optimistic.

Let yourself get swept away in the burgeoning hype surrounding the England camp.

Perhaps an unpopular opinion when Gareth Southgate took over nearly two years, but the boss has allowed us to enjoy English football once more.

In the Leeds sunshine, following a powerful rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ and engulfed by the uplifting effects of England’s travelling brass band, the Three Lions ran out 2-0 victors over fellow World Cup participants Costa Rica.

It wasn’t the result, per se, that inspired optimism, but the performance. It was a display oozing energy, passion and desire, mental attributes long eroded by failures of the past. It was unnaturally peaceful.

There was nothing egotistical, nothing to suggest that any player had an ulterior motive other than to do their best for their country. No off-field disputes, no last-minute pleas of help to retired internationals.

Southgate has got his players singing from the same hymn sheet. Moreover, they were happy to sing the song.

This wasn’t international duty. This was simply some mates having fun.

“We are mates…”

Gone are the days of Fabio Capello’s ‘Iron Curtain,’ replaced by an Southgate’s open-door policy, one in which Danny Rose felt comfortable revealing his battle with depression.

Rose’s comfort and the support he received from his teammates demonstrates a sense of togetherness and unity within the England camp.

We are mates going away to play in a World Cup. It’s fantastic. -Marcus Rashford.

Imagine a Super Bowl style media day at St George’s Park in the past and it’s completely unthinkable, especially at a time when the press were breathing down England’s necks with unjustifiably high expectations, creating a pressurised and disjointed environment.

REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

How drastically different that Rose opened up about mental health issues -an unfortunately highly stigmatised issue amongst footballers- and Raheem Sterling was happy to discuss that tattoo.

The adult approach to the media and willingness to participate is but a mere testament to the atmosphere within the camp. One of camaraderie and harmony.

Que sera, sera

One of England’s biggest issues in the past was the pressure they found themselves under come an international tournament. There was nothing to suggest that England would ever amount to much at a major competition, but laden they were, nonetheless, with unfairly high expectation.

Southgate has changed this, however.

What often goes unappreciated buried amongst the popularity of tactical analysis is that Southgate has altered England’s perception. England are what they are on the international stage and, frankly, that’s okay.

REUTERS/Phil Noble

No longer are the Three Lions caged by the notion of a once great nation failing to achieve what they have been entitled to.

In doing so, Southgate has released them from the shackles of entitlement and freed them to forage in the wild, able to perform without undue pressure, expectation and, importantly, fear of criticism for falling short of the former.

Expect nothing and receive everything. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.

All for one and one for all

And the effects were instantaneously clear.

The Three Lions were encouraged to play fast, attacking football, uninhibited by the scolding they’d possibly face from a misplaced pass or break down of possession. No caution, but unbridled positivity.

REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

Every single player looked comfortable on the ball against Costa Rica and England were atypically dynamic in possession, attacking namely through Marcus Rashford. Playing with freedom, the 20-year-old posed a constant threat and fearlessly took players on.

As did Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the Chelsea loanee who spent 2017/18 at Selhurst Park. Unsure of his place in the hierarchy, the central midfielder was confident in possession, encouraged to take risks and aggressively progressed the ball.

Costa Rica were denied time on the ball and the Three Lions pressed aggressively, high up the pitch with passion and determination to win the ball back. Every player pulled their weight and created a coherent pressing unit, essential to the effectiveness of this style.

This was a performance epitomising the lost energy of past generations of England players, characterised by a sense of coherency and an 'all for one and one for all' mentality.

The next generation

With only five players remaining from England's underwhelming World Cup 2014 campaign, there's a sense of a new generation of player under Southgate.

There's no pressure, expectation or ego.

Southgate and his men seemed relaxed, fearless of what awaits them at Russia. Whilst England aren't touted as potential World Cup winners, Southgate has a youthfully enthusiastic squad all pulling in the same direction, unphased by past failures and one pervading confidence.

All of this amounts to a justifiable sense of happiness and optimism. It's okay to feel this way.

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group C in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

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Oli Stein

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Oli graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in History and has worked with RealSport since September 2016.

Currently assistant football editor and Tottenham correspondent.

Follow him on Twitter: @steinoliver_

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