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How we grew to like England again under Gareth Southgate

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There was something in the air at Elland Road last week, something not felt for some time. It was present when Marcus Rashford lashed England into the lead against Costa Rica in their final World Cup warm-up, igniting a chorus of Footballs Coming Home.

A warmth and optimism – not the blind kind that haunts the onset of every major tournament, but a lucid recognition of progress – has broken out around Gareth Southgates team. Unexpectedly, the England manager has made us like them again.

Southgate deserves enormous credit because there is so much to like about the regime he has shaped since inheriting the debris of Sam Allardyces short-lived reign in September 2016.

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It is worth recalling the disarray of that time, just a few weeks after Englands Euro 2016 humiliation against Iceland, which sent national sentiment towards the team tumbling to a modern nadir.

On Tuesday Southgate took a buoyant party to Russia, where the acid test of his quiet revolution will begin on Monday with their opening fixture of Group G, against Tunisia in Volgograd.

The former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender quickly impressed in the role, his considered yet assertive media utterances providing a welcome contrast to the bluster and bombast of Allardyce.

It began a coming of age for Southgate the manager, whose mixed record at Boro and previous role with Englands Under-21s led to initial scepticism at his elevation.

The 47-year-old has also shed a caricaturish image, a legacy of his Euro 96 penalty shoot-out miss and subsequent willingness to poke fun at that failure, and assumed a gravitas.

Southgate has played to England's abundance of pace and running (Source: Getty)

Saying the right things only goes so far, however, and Southgate has shown himself to be a bold and clear-sighted tactician.

He wasted little time in introducing a high-energy game that played to Englands strengths and was familiar to the young players he promoted from his Under-21 team, resulting in an eye-catching display against Spain at Wembley.

He has retained that approach but evolved the shape to make best use of the teams athleticism and compensate for a lack of midfield playmakers.

For the first time in decades, England begin a tournament with an identifiable plan built for the group and not a single star player.

Joined-up thinking

This World Cup there is no Wayne Rooney or Paul Gascoigne, no flawed talisman to pin hopes on. Indeed there are few superstars, compared with the Golden Generations Rooney, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, and few egos.

It is another admirable feat of Southgates work that he has populated his team with players who appear to be decent types. The ever-humble Harry Kane is the personification, but Eric Dier, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose and Jordan Henderson have all come across particularly well.

In the face of one confected outrage after another, Raheem Sterling has remained a measured, unassuming character.

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Eric Dier's grounded character is typical of this England squad (Source: Getty)

There is a joined-up thinking to Southgates work, not least in his belief in the England DNA project – an attempt to instil the same playing values throughout all age-group teams that was roundly derided upon its launch four years ago.

It has born fruit: England are unbeaten in their last 10 games, including draws with World Cup favourites Brazil and Germany, and won seven of those fixtures.

The talk is of confidence in the camp, which is said to be happier and less burdened by the pressure of previous campaigns.

Carried away?

But its worth asking whether the goodwill that Southgate and his team have generated has clouded our collective judgement at a time when we are acutely susceptible to the intoxicating sense of anticipation that a World Cup brings.

Have we – after everything: Iceland, Hodgsons indecision, the Capello years, all the miserable disappointments; after promising ourselves we wouldnt this time – got carried away again?

Because England have achieved nothing yet, not really. Qualifying for Russia was the absolute minimum requirement and, while it never looked under threat, they progressed less emphatically than in the past, finishing the job with one-goal wins over Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia.

For all of the promise, Southgates tenure has included its fair share of turgid encounters too, which have left unanswered questions about their ability to overcome opponents who defend in numbers.

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England can still improve their cutting edge in attack (Source: Getty)

Scoring goals has not come easily, despite the presence of Kane, Sterling, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy, who netted a collective 101 times for their clubs last season.

Holding the likes of Brazil and Germany to goalless draws is a defensive achievement, no doubt, but to go deep at the World Cup England will have to beat superior sides. Simply massing the ranks and shutting them out isnt enough.

So lets not fall into the trap of World Cups past and expect too much from a team that has not won a knockout match at any major tournament for 12 years, especially when there are serial winners such as Brazil, Germany, Spain and France to navigate.

Crank up Three Lions and salute Southgate for a job very well done – so far. England have won back the nations affection; now all they need are the results.

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