From Wayne to Kane: England excel after ditching Mr Big Stuff mentality | Barney Ronay
Since Wayne Rooney retired England are unbeaten and full of goals and Harry Kane is the perfect superstar of a squad built without starriness
As the final whistle was blown at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium Kyle Walker grabbed the match ball and gleefully smashed it in an arc into the white and ruby-red seats, where a crush of heat-stricken travelling fans revelled and waved and gurgled, basking in the glorious improbability of Englands 6-1 defeat of Panama.
The hope probably does get you in the end but it is undeniably fun while it lasts. At days like these tournament football can feel a bit like a doomed vacation intrigue, a World Cup group stage version of the broodingly handsome Spanish waiter wholl take you for a pedalo ride, wave goodbye and never write, but who will remain forever a fond, cologne-drenched summer memory.
Englands two Group G wins will be taken in more sober context by the players and handling. Panama were a poor squad, with a porous defence led by the captain, Romn Torres, who floated around the edge of video games like a Soviet-era battle cruiser rusting its final periods away at the Kaliningrad docks.
On the other hand England have played poor squads before at World Cups and never won like this. Perhaps those on the leading edge might be allowed to bask simply a little in the 68 -year rarity of a 6-1 win against anyone. Sport is all about instants. And as a wise man once mentioned, when something’s good its never gone.
That done, it is now time to look ahead to Thursday and entry into an entirely different footballing universe. England will play “the worlds” No 3-ranked team in their final group match. After which its a last-1 6 tie against one of Japan, Senegal or Colombia. All three would be dangerous knockout adversaries. All three would also present an opportunity to progress for an England team notable for a distinctly un-English sense of collectivism and detailed planning.
With this in mind Belgium will present the most apt of adversaries. There is an appealing symmetry, two teams at pointedly different stages in new developments. For Belgium the England of tournaments past represented by cautionary tale, evidence of the disorientating effects of being both blessed and burdened by a golden seam of players.
Right now Roberto Martnez has more in common with Sven-Gran Eriksson or Kevin Keegan than he does with Southgate, duty not with discovering musicians, but with cramming a wealth of unarguable flair into a high-functioning team.
Belgium have better players than England in most points but they likewise have issues of balance. Martnez is utilizing Yannick Carrasco as a right wing-back and tinkering with Kevin De Bruynes best role. The all-star central midfielder. The ginger genius in somewhat the wrong pocket. Welcome to our world. And while you are there beware of Englands own pitfalls, from the Baden-Baden rat pack, to Steve McClarens excitable dead end, to the abrupt congealment of the Fabio Capello years.
By contrast a lack of obvious suns has helped Southgate to be ruthless and to favour above all the primacy of the system. Centre-halves have been selected on their ability to use the ball not the splendour of their club team.
A willingness to buy into the plan, studiousness over starriness, has been key to selection. It is all very well having detailed evidence-based set-piece schemes. But these are wasted if the Mr Big Stuff mentality takes over, as it has in the past where England have played like a collect of celebrity men, trusting that one of these star players will eventually draw rank and swat aside whichever unfortunate bunch of foreigners Algeria, the USA, Iceland, Russia happens to stand in their way.
In a sense this has been a journey from Wayne to Kane. It would be entirely wrong to blamed Wayne Rooney for the poverty of Englands recent tournament play. Rooney was a hall-of-famer England player, and a hard worker too but his international retirement has coincided with a complete transformation of the team dynamic.
Since Rooney retired in August last year England have played 12, won nine and drawn three, scoring 22 goals in the process. More to the point the team have seemed liquid, mobile in every point, playing to a system not a dominant central personality.
England do have a sun in Harry Kane, all the more so now his objectives have enthroned him as an early Golden Boot contender. It is a significant spree. Kane has 13 goals in his past nine England plays, a purple run to match anything any modern England striker has made. Rooneys best was 11 in ten. The peerless Jimmy Greaves get 16 in 11 at one stage. Gary Lineker went on a defining run of 17 in 11 over 18 months, bookended by hat-tricks against Poland and Turkey.
If this is rarified region for Kane, perhaps the best part is exactly what it feels like a squad accomplishment, an extension of the collective will. Kane has always seemed an obvious successor to that grand age-old alpha lineage of England centre-forwards. Like Lineker he has that same purity of intention, a palpable desire for the relevant recommendations of the leonine England goalscorer.
But he is also the perfect sun for this team, wholly embedded, his best virtues run rate, link-up play-act, unrelenting pressure the same virtues that define the best of the early Southgate years.
Kane will play where he is asked, mix as a striking pair, plummet deep as a No 10, run and harry and bump defenders.
This is a credit to the player and to Southgates leadership and selection. If there is a flaw it is that an is a lack of starriness coincides with an absence of purposes elsewhere. Between them Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard will travel to Kaliningrad with six aims in 80 England appearances. The farther England progress, the more likely this dependency is to gum the wheels.
England’s defence will also face a vertiginous step up in class against Belgium. Although even here the power of the organizations of the system may be key. Southgate will have analyzed Belgium with the same clear-sighted eye for an rim. He will know they are a team who thrive in possession, who can fret a little without it. The key in these later matches could be the defences ability to keep and pass the ball, as they did so well against Panama.
If England are to come unstuck in their next two matches they are able to at least lose better, lose in a more interesting style. A lone, altruistic sun; a free-wheeling start; and a squad who will look to control the ball rather than chase it against powerful opposition. This is at the very least a fascinating departure.