Why England will head into 2024 with their sense of optimism restored

In 2023, as in 2022, a marathon season ended for England’s players in June, north of their Wembley home, against eastern European opposition. And there, it is fair to say, the similarities ended. A year ago came the historic low, the 4-0 loss to Hungary at Molineux that was England’s heaviest home defeat since 1928, the night Gareth Southgate was told he did not know what he was doing and when both he and many another concluded his reign was nearing an undignified end.

Twelve months and five days later, a 7-0 thrashing of North Macedonia at Old Trafford capped a restorative spell. Euro 2024 beckons, a broadly positive World Cup has been followed by a quartet of qualifying wins and the feel of Southgate’s reign, of youthful progressiveness, has largely been restored.

The torrid June of 2022 has started to look like the anomaly, not the start of the slide. The encouraging June of 2023 has more in keeping with most of Southgate’s tenure. “We look back at last summer, with four matches, [playing] behind closed doors for two and we needed to look at new players,” he reflected. “There were a lot of circumstances around those.”

A year on, England could have been forgiven for suffering from a similar tiredness. Yet if the fixtures were easier now, there was a relish and a sharpness. Southgate fielded a forward line with three of the outstanding players of the Premier League campaign, in Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford: they scored six of the seven goals to take their combined tally to 96 goals for the season for clubs and country. They were emblematic of a side who still showed a sharpness.

“Post World Cup, we have hit a sweet spot,” Southgate said. The most seismic result of England’s season was actually the victory over Italy in Naples but, after the 6-2 demolition of Iran in the World Cup, North Macedonia can testify that teams with the ability to get excellent results can find themselves eviscerated by England.

“We have a hunger to go further than we’ve been and keep pushing forward, confidence from big nights we’ve been involved in,” Southgate said. “It’s a good place but we have to keep pushing. We have set a standard in the last four games where anything possible. There is a brilliant feel around the squad and that creates a strong team.”

Few players are better at engendering a positivity feeling than Saka with his infectious enthusiasm. “He’s talented, he’s humble, he’s incredibly popular,” said Southgate. There was a certain symbolism to Saka’s hat-trick. There has seemed something of a changing of the guard over the last year. Southgate has been a loyalist to the core of the team who gave him breakthrough tournaments in 2018 and 2021 but he has also recognised talent when it has emerged.

Saka scored his first career hat-trick at Old Trafford (REUTERS)

England’s player of the World Cup was Jude Bellingham. Even though he missed their June fixtures, Real Madrid’s newest signing may have been their outstanding individual of the season. But if not, then Saka has a compelling case.

When the campaign began, perhaps neither was an automatic choice. Now each is. Bellingham shifted the equation in the World Cup, to the detriment of Mason Mount; if Southgate plays 4-3-3 – as he does now, though last summer it still felt as though he wanted the security blanket of a third centre-back – then the Bundesliga player of the year suits the role as the most attacking midfielder. In attack, if Raheem Sterling used to be the guaranteed starter on the flanks now it should be Saka; it helps that he has become a regular scorer.

A third player of rare gifts may yet join them in the strongest side. Trent Alexander-Arnold had felt the conundrum Southgate could not solve; until Jurgen Klopp gave him a helping hand, anyway. The Liverpudlian’s end-of-season shift into midfield for his club led to two encouraging performances for his country. A remarkable pass for Saka’s terrific second goal, the kind of 50-yard ball that invokes mentions of quarterbacks, was an illustration of his passing range.

It was nevertheless notable that Southgate singled out another Liverpool player for praise. “Our senior players set a brilliant tone. [Jordan] Henderson won’t get the headlines but the way he set the tone, mixing the game up was really important.” Yet the thought of a midfield trio of Bellingham, Alexander-Arnold and Declan Rice is tantalising. A department where England felt short of options in the 2018 World Cup could be one where they boast enviable class.

It helps, too, to have players on the rise. Saka, Rashford and Bellingham have just had the best seasons of their careers so far. Five of their England teammates did a treble for their club. If a theme of Southgate’s reign has been to give the national team back a feelgood factor and a sense of optimism, it has been a feature of the last year, too. Southgate won’t be defined by the summer of 2023, but nor will he be by the summer of 2022. But now he can get for the summer of 2024 with renewed hope of a defining achievement.


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