Carragher, it seemed, touched a nerve. These players, he was told repeatedly, are vastly superior to their predecessors. All of the hope and excitement and ambition that England possessed in the 1990s and 2000s was, we can see with the piercing vision of modernity, a delusion, a whole generation of fool’s gold.
And yet that is, more than a little, to rewrite the past, and to use that false interpretation to castigate Southgate. England has always produced rather more, and rather better, players than it thinks it has. Which players from this team would get into that team is an airy, futile debate, but the central point — that perhaps the 2020s iteration of England is not markedly different than those of the 1990s or 2000s — is a sound one.
That the team of Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and all the rest can be written off so easily is not only because we know, now, that their story ended in disappointment, in anticlimax. Their failure to win a World Cup must mean they were failures as a whole.
It is because, too, soccer wears its goldfish memory with pride, its lionization of the present necessitating a diminution of the past. That not only distorts how we come to regard teams from previous eras — even, or perhaps especially, relatively recent ones. It also affects what we expect from teams in the present. Southgate has an outstanding group of players at his disposal. Expecting them to outstrip all that went before, though, is perhaps setting them up to fail.
I’ll start this week by not really answering a question from Shawn Donnelly. “The World Cup has the best players, but not the world’s best coaches: Most of the national team coaches feel second rate,” he wrote, promoting quite a few of them in a single sentence. “This is weird and incongruent. Is there any way to fix it?”
In a word: no. And the reason for that is not, as is generally the case in soccer, money. National team coaches are absurdly generously paid, both for the amount of work they have to do and the limited impact they have. It’s an issue of time.
International managers have so little time with their teams that I would query whether Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp or whoever could have a significant impact on a national side. Luis Enrique, Hansi Flick and Roberto Mancini all suggest that a better coach can make some difference, but I’m not sure Guardiola, say, could truly impress his ideas on a group of players he sees five times a year.