The consensus is that this England team is "different". Of course, reaching the quarter-finals of the Fifa World Cup without a string of big names helps the cause, but the English team has lost just one game while on course to the quarter-finals. The defeat too came against Belgium who have been prolific in this tournament, and also because the English rested most of their first-team players, having won their passage to the Round of 16.
Given their good form, expectations are rife and for a good reason, that England might go all the way and achieve something that England's 'golden generation' comprising David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Ashley Cole, and Wayne Rooney couldn't.
England have scored nine goals in four games and only allowed four goals. What's the reason behind the sort of "resurgence" for the English and can they make the end as good as the beginning? We look at the possible reasons and explanations behind England's good form:
1) Young, multi-cultural bunch of lads-- This is the most multiracial England squad to represent its country at a major tournament, with 11 players of colour. It is also a young squad: the average age being mere 26. This England team is relatively young. Only three players entered the World Cup in their 30s (tied for the lowest number in the tournament), and several starters had fewer than 10 caps. Even the stain of Euro 2016 has been somewhat washed away, as more than half the roster has turned over. Manager Gareth Southgate believes lack of experience shouldn't be a hindrance for his team which is after the World Cup trophy but instead see this as an opportunity to make their own history.
"History is not the most important thing for this team. They have the opportunity to make their own history," Southgate said. "They're a young team that’s going to get better and better. I really enjoy working with all of them, and I’m intrigued to see how far they can go," he said.
This is a departure from the stance of his predecessor, Sam Allardyce, a fervent critic of the increasing number of foreign coaches in English football, and young players who seek to play their football elsewhere in Europe.
2) Increased tactical awareness: England was infamous for its tactical rigidity. 'Iron laws' as they were called -- the team's set formation was 4-4-2 and no amount of failure at major tournaments could ever lead to an English coach actually questioning the usefulness of the system. Gareth Southgate made the change to 3-5-2 which can also change to 3-3-2-2 on occasions.
A great tactical tinkering Southgate achieved with this new formation is the three-man defence of Kyle Walker, John Stones, and Harry Maguire that has allowed England to really shore up its defence. It also allows its wing-backs, especially Kieran Trippier, to be more attack-minded. Personnel-wise, all three centre-backs offer something unique in their role. Maguire is a physical presence while Stones, who is a starter in Pep Guardiola's Machester City, is very comfortable on the ball and has good passing skills apart from the ability to read the game. Walker is really effective in one-on-one situation and has electric pace.
Southgate also allows his team to keep possession of the ball and not just hack it away to the forward as quickly as possible -- the apparent tactic of the former English teams. This allows the English defence to build from the back.
Rio Ferdinand, a former English international who played at centre-back, speaks of the importance of building from the back.
"Here, (John) Stones – this is what I used to love – five men eliminated out of the game with one pass. No, it doesn't come with a shot as the end product, but we're here. End of the game, 90th minute, patience, the courage to play – what do we get out of it? A corner. And where does this corner lead to? This leads to the goal," Ferdinand said at a BBC panel discussion while discussing England's late winner over Tunisia.
Ferdinand moaned that former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson forbade his centre-backs from running forward with the ball and instead pass it to the midfield, calling it "a step backwards". "I think that probably took a lot away from my performances in an England shirt, and probably collectively for us," the former Manchester United player said.
His contemporary Frank Lampard too said the 4-4-2 England played under Eriksson was rigid and didn't allow them to find space behind opposition defenders.
3) Performances over names: In the era of England's 'golden generation', the English internationals were also the top dogs at their respective clubs. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Gary Neville were undisputed starters at Manchester United, while Rio Ferdinand was their best defender for almost a decade. Rooney too emerged as an important player for the Red Devils. In Chelsea, John Terry and Frank Lampard were the major players while nobody was bigger than Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher in Liverpool.
However, the "internationalisation" of the Premier League, which many -- including former manager Sam Allardyce -- bemoan, also means that foreign players have come to dominate the Premier League. The only exception today might be Tottenham where Harry Kane is the most valued player, followed closely by Dele Alli. This means that there is no guaranteed starter in the English team and everyone has to earn his place in the team. This also forces the manager to actually have a look at teams that might not have the glamour power or top-ranked but where a certain player might be churning out noteworthy performances.
Due to the lack of big names, Southgate is also without the headache of dropping any of them and inviting public wrath.
4) Flexible manager -- Gareth Southgate has allowed himself to learn from other teams and not just take a leaf out of classic English football. The English manager has said that he himself learnt a lot -- tactically speaking -- from other European teams, specifically during a weeks-long trip across the continent in the summer. According to Southgate, that is when he decided to change the team's formation to 3-3-2-2. The current coach also allows his players to be creative, something which the former English managers forbade.
5) Tactical elevation in Premier League -- The influx of quality players and coaches has raised the general standard of the English league which was once just full of hard and fast games. The English players at the top clubs, although lesser in number, get better coaching from tactical brains like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino, and Antonio Conte -- all with contrasting styles that gives the English league a tactical richness unheard of in its preceding years. The level of training and competition has also increased in the league. All of this benefits the English players who retain those lessons learned at club level and take it to the international stage.
The current England team is playing a flexible three-at-the-back system which would have been unimaginable just few years back. Players are also evolving tactically and skill-wise and not just throwing themselves at every challenge possible on the ground.
6) Low expectations: Despite all the cries of "It's coming home," the truth is not many people expected this English to advance much far in this year's tournament. Mostly because the fans back home had been accustomed to being disappointed with their team's performances. The golden generation failed in 2006. England won just one match in the next two editions of the World Cup. At Euro 2016, the English were knocked out in the second round. This lack of success in major tournaments and the lack of superstars in the team really didn't give optimism to many fans who have been pleasantly surprised by the positive results. The team too benefitted from low expectations allowing them to express more freely and without much pressure.
7) Discipline and resilience: Not all matches England have played in the ongoing tournament have been straightforward wins, they have had to grind a few results. For example, in their 2-1 win over Tunisia in group stage and their match against Colombia which they won on penalties, are a proof that this team has the discipline and the resilience to see out a game and end on the winning side without losing their cool.
8) No air or self-obsessive behaviour: The English team and their media have almost always been at loggerheads with much of the trouble brewing from the fact that the English tabloids love to nitpick and the English players, most of them superstars in their own right, gave them the stuff to write about. This English team is stripped of all the pretensions. Even its most impactful player, captain Harry Kane has an unassuming personality and is seen as a man who is close to his roots. This has made the team more connected to the common Englishman.
9) Because it's coming home: "Three Lions" (Football's coming home) was a song released in 1996 as a single by English band 'The Lightning Seeds' to mark the England football team's participation in that year's World Cup tournament. And although that didn't help change England's fortunes on the field, the song has been rehashed and remembered every four years when the World Cup comes. This year has been no different in the sense that the song is on every English fan's lips but their team's performance has certainly been uplifting. If Kane-led squad continues to grind out the results it is doing till now, "it" might just come home. And, even if it doesn't, this team's performances have given England enough optimism about English football's future.