As a much-hated band once sang, ‘It’s been a while’. I know, I know, it’s rude enough of me to disappear for months without so much of a by or leave, it’s even worse, that I did it after doing the set up for an international campaign, leaving literally three regular readers desperate to find out how our shiny new 4-4-2 worked out, but to come back now and quote Nickleback lyrics, is just beyond the pale. Okay, I do this a lot. I make grand promises of a year’s worth of blog posts before running off after releasing a handful, only to come back in the summer and try to cram them in before the next FM releases, like a student a week before exams. Is twice enough to say I do it a lot? I have a 100% record in this at least. Well, I’m here now and I’ve spent a portion of my day dusting the cobwebs off of the ol’ England save and it’s still a frozen moment of *editing to avoid spoilers*. So with that massive plot twist revealed, let us crack on with how we got there.
Qualifying was a pretty much by the numbers affair and the numbers were good. Harry Kane decided to break all goal scoring records and we topped our group unbeaten. We were hardly winning any awards for our defending but when you manage to give Cambridge United legend Uche Ikeaku an international run and he gets into the qualifying top scorer’s list then you know you’re doing something right. Also, this is Kevin Keegans 4-4-2, the man only does attacking football and, for his time, he did it brilliantly. It wasn’t just goals though, Dele Alli was the real engine in midfield getting everywhere and doing everything needed of him, while we had seven players ranked in the top twenty highest average ratings, all of them regulars. Thus far typical England.
We were drawn against Norway, Serbia (again) and Slokavia in the group stages managing to avoid some of the scarier draws. Routine wins followed, beating Serbia 2-0, Norway 3-0 and Slovakia 4-1. This time Kane shared the goals, only scoring twice, with Danny Ward, Jesse Lingard (2), John Stones, Jadon Sancho, Alli, Calum Hudson-Odoi all chipping in to see us through. We weren’t just winning we were playing well, this was a world away from the feeble 4-3-3 we played at the World Cup. We were a force to be reckoned with.
First up in the Second Round was Belgium, while that may, at first, seem tough opposition this wasn’t the Belgium we know. Stil ranked a respectable 9th but a shadow of their former selves. Edan Hazard had retired after making 145 starts for his country, Kevin De Bruyne had done the same after 118. Of the ‘stars’ who did remain was a 35-year-old Toby Alderweireld who couldn’t find a club and an only just past his prime Romelu Lukaku who would have been a real threat if he wasn’t the only world-class player on his team. After Ward headed in from close range after three minutes it was pretty much one-way traffic. Ward was played through by Lingard after the break to fire home into the bottom right and while Alex Witsel arriving late in the box gave Belgium a glimmer of hope, Lingard smashed the ball into the top right after a carbon copy of his own ball through for Ward, this time from Sancho. In reality, it would have been a major disappointment to have lost this, so far we had only lived up to expectations, however, a draw against top-ranked France would give us the opportunity to surpass them.
“Mike mate, you’ve spoiled the score by putting that stupid screengrab at the start of this paragraph you idiot”. Look, I know, but I don’t know how to put them at the end of paragraphs or if it’s even possible so you’ll have to deal with the spoiler and stop whinging. We never got out of the gates here, we’d beaten France 2-0 in a warm-up friendly for this tournament so I was quietly hopeful but alas it wasn’t to be. While Belgium has stagnated in the jump to the future, France has allowed their already scarily talented youngsters to mature into even more scarily talented players. All it took was a small smidgen of space to open up in our box for Kylian Mbappe and he took full advantage rifling a first time shot past Jordan Pickford before Trent Alexander-Arnold buried us with an uncharacteristically stupid mistake. After tackling Anthony Martial he then turned and fired the clearance straight at him, the rebound found Mbappe who crossed for Nabil Fekir to nod home while our bemused center-backs tried to cover. Self-sabotage yes but we were never really at the races.
I mentioned how our qualifying was a classic England performance, well that extended out to our campaign proper as well. Flatter against the smaller sides and then crumble at the first challenge you come across. That may sum things up pretty nicely at face value I feel it is slightly unfair to our campaign as a whole. We played good football, which is reflected in the players standing within the end of tournament stats, and I feel on another day, a save and reload, we could have been the ones walking away with a 2-0 win and pushing on to try and win the tournament. While I’ve bigged up Frances ability they managed to lose in the next round to the Czech Republic, while the Netherlands ended up willing the tournament. While we only reached the Quarter’s this would still have been an England to be proud of, I’m happy and optimistic about the future.