Saturday 14 July 2018, 20:15

Southgate's Three Lions exit with pride and room to improve

  • England reflect on Russia 2018 journey

  • Our team reporter looks at areas needing improvement for the Three Lions

  • Kane: "This game showed there is still room for improvement"

By Laure James with England

Gareth Southgate’s young English side return from Russia 2018 having exceeded all expectations. They have achieved the country’s joint-second best FIFA World Cup™ finish after being defeated by Belgium 2-0 in the Play-off for Third Place, recorded the highest margin in a victory, while Harry Kane is in prime position to win the adidas Golden Boot.

“This game showed there is still room for improvement,” Kane told ITV. “We're not the finished article, we're still improving and will only get better. We don't want to wait another 20 years to get into the semi-finals and the big matches. We need to improve, we need to get better but that will come.”

Reflections on their impressive performances and expressive play will be fond ones for all involved, yet in order to progress even further, this vibrant group of players and their coaching staff will identify areas for improvement.

A cutting edge Seven matches in 26 days after a long season could have spelled a sluggish end to the summer for the Three Lions, yet they took the space afforded by Belgium and remained faithful to their passing game, dominating with 57 per cent of possession and almost two-thirds as many passes as Roberto Martinez’s men. What Belgium did show, however, was end-product and an incisive counter-attack.

A midfield maestro While England excelled during the group stage, and were triumphant over Colombia and Sweden, the truer tests came at the business end and their midfield tussles with Croatia and Belgium showed how England could benefit from their own Luca Modric or Eden Hazard. England's midfield is creative, effervescent and fearless but perhaps lacks the dazzle we saw from Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Whether Dele, for instance, can develop into a world-class problem-maker for defenders remains to be seen.

Goals from open-play Nine of England’s 12 tournament goals came from set-pieces, while greater ruthlessness from open play would no doubt help to set this team apart in future tournaments. Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford’s introductions at half-time injected fresh initiative before Eric Dier was unlucky to see his neat chip over Thibaut Courtois cleared off the line. Kieran Trippier’s crosses from the right created promising moments, yet chances Kane would have devoured mercilessly earlier in the tournament escaped him in the last two games.

“We could have put away a couple of our chances because we were good going forward and created plenty of opportunities,” Trippier told FIFA TV. “We’ve come up against some very good teams as we did tonight but we’ve shown we are competitive.”

Now 55 days since the camp first began and with just 27 days until the English Premier League kicks off, the squad will take a very well-deserved break. For Southgate, it will be an opportunity to consider the next challenges ahead for his tenacious group of players, but he will look back deservedly at the past few weeks with enormous pride.