While the English lid is still on, it is certainly holding on for dear life at this point.
England won their first World Cup penalty shootout in their history in the early hours of Wednesday morning (Australian time), eliminating Group H winners Colombia and advancing to their first World Cup quarterfinal since the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Prior to Wednesday morning’s contest at the Spartak Stadium, England had tasted defeat in every single World Cup penalty shootout they had been a part of; losing to West Germany in the semifinals of 1990, Argentina in the quarterfinals of 1998, and Portugal in the quarterfinals of 2006.
England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford – who saved the penalty of Carlos Bacca to give England a chance to win the game – and penalty takers Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Kieran Trippier, and Eric Dier were the history makers for England, who will now play Sweden in the quarterfinals in Samara on Saturday evening (Australian time).
In the broader context, this shootout win is just one of many new beginnings for a Three Lions side that has come to Russia seeking to create a clear break between themselves and the English national side’s recent, tortured past.
Manager Gareth Southgate’s side arrived in Russia with a new look – only two members of the 2018 England squad were present at the 2014 World Cup – and a new attitude; playing in a 3-5-2 formation with an emphasis on attacking play and movement and fostering a friendlier, more jovial atmosphere between themselves and the traveling English press pack.
The most important new factor in this team, however, is the presence of captain Kane, because the impact that the 24-year-old captain has on this England team cannot be understated.
Kane became the first England player since Tommy Lawton in 1939 to score in six consecutive appearances for the Three Lions with his 57th-minute penalty on Wednesday morning. His six goals in his first three World Cup appearances have only been bettered in World Cup history by Hungary’s Sandor Kocsis (9), Germany’s Gerd Muller (7) and Argentina’s Guillermo Stabile (7).
Further reinforcing his ability to produce his best form on an international level, Kane has scored 14 goals in his 10 appearances for England under Southgate, including goals in every game he has played as captain.
A lethal striker, Kane has a gravity to him that draws opposition defenders out of position; his aura forcing the opposition backs to run with him and leave space for his teammates to exploit.
This was most evident in Jesse Lingard’s goal against Panama, where Kane’s movement off the ball created the pocket of space that allowed Lingard to launch his thunderbolt that made it 3-0.
Kane attracts this attention from opposition defenders without the ball because of his seemingly physic ability to get himself into the right space at the right time to create goalscoring opportunities. His awareness of where he needs to be to facilitate his own attempts on goals or those of a teammate means that Kane is always a chance of popping up and grabbing a goal – no matter how much attention has been paid to him.
No goal sums this up more than Kane’s winner against Tunisia in England’s first group. Finally freed from the shirt pulling and holding from the Tunisian defense after referee Wilmar Roldan, finally, warned the Eagles of Carthage against employing the tactics, Kane was able to ghost unmarked to the edge of the six-yard-box and freely turn in a header at an open near post.
Kane’s ability to find space inside the penalty area, especially from set pieces, is also the major reason why England has been awarded four penalties for this World Cup.
Defenders, so wary of the Spurs striker’s ability to get himself into dangerous areas and create goals, will often drape themselves over Kane in an effort to stifle his movement.
In a World Cup where VAR has been introduced and referees are now beginning to crack down on illegal obstruction by defenders on set pieces, this means that Kane is perhaps the most dangerous forward in this year’s tournament – a player that defenders will have to make the choice to either potentially lose containment on or potentially give away a penalty to obstruct.
Coming into this year’s tournament, sober analysis of the young England side declared that a quarterfinals berth would be a good result in Russia, with anything else beyond that a welcome bonus. This squad, observers argued, was one that would grow together in the lead into Euro 2020 and Qatar 2022 and serve as serious contenders in those tournaments.
This analysis, when viewed objectively, remains accurate.
The England starting XI that faced Colombia had an average age of 25 years. Replace 32-year-old Ashley Young with 28-year-old Danny Rose and 28-year-old Jordan Henderson with 24-year-old Eric Dier or 22-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek and that number gets even lower.
This is a squad that will grow and matures together as England heads to future tournaments, and they will be all the richer for having the experience of Russia 2018, especially the exorcising of the Three Lions penalty shootout demons.
That growing squad will be led by arguably the world’s best striker in Kane, a striker that is going to continue to grow into his role as a leader and on-field inspiration for both club and country.
It’s going to be an amazing ride.