It was the anthem of 2018. You couldn’t possibly walk into a pub throughout the entire summer without plunging into a chorus of Baddiel, Skinner and The Lightning Seeds’ unflinchingly optimistic ode to the England national team.
Over 16 months have passed since the dream died once again, this time at the hands of Croatia in a World Cup semi-final.
‘Progress’ was our shoulder to cry on. At least we showed ‘progress’.
Since heartbreak in Moscow, England powered their way to the Nations League finals and have emphatically secured their place at Euro 2020 by winning qualifying Group A at a canter.
Following the Kosovo win at the weekend, Gareth Southgate gave us a report on the intangible status of ‘progress’.
“We’re definitely further ahead than we were heading into Russia,” he said.
“But we made massive strides in this period when we went into Russia. We’ve got to make sure that, to get the level of performance next summer, we’re going to have to improve in the way that we did over that spell as well.”
That’s the manager’s take, but what shape are England really in as Euro 2020 looms?
Goals, Goals, Goals
While winning Group A hardly justifies a pre-emptive ‘Champions of Europe 2020’ tattoo, the manner in which it was conquered can’t be seen as anything but a massive win.
The Three Lions scored more goals (37) than during any other qualifying campaign in their history – World Cup or European Championships – despite playing fewer games (eight) than most 10-game group stages.
Cynics will refuse to acknowledge the difference between scraping beyond minnows and thoroughly dominating them, but England have consistently, vigorously beaten teams with style and verve – they have been far from laboured victories.
The Raheem Effect
Goals alone against Bulgaria et al won’t set pulses racing, but Raheem Sterling’s surge in form certainly will have.
It’s easy to forget that going into Russia 2018, Sterling was a bit-part player for England.
The Manchester City star infamously hadn’t scored for his country since October 2015, and failed to shine on the world stage in Russia, despite the team’s success.
Southgate deserves credit for patience with arguably his greatest asset, and since eventually breaking his drought in October last year, Sterling has found the net 10 times in 11 games, including a hat-trick against Czech Republic and a brace against top class opposition in Spain.
Sterling’s ‘arrival’ has significantly eased the burden on Harry Kane, taken the spotlight away from the Spurs superstar, yet Kane has responded with 13 strikes in 11 games.
Regardless of who the goals are coming against, the fact that England are putting teams to the sword in a spritely manner with a potent formula is exciting.
Kane, Sterling and Marcus Rashford offer enough on their own, but the emergence of talent since 2018 has been stunning.
Strength in depth
Add in Jadon Sancho, Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Harry Winks from the ‘qualifying goalscorers who didn’t make it to the World Cup’ list and Southgate has an abundance of talent to work with.
James Maddison, Callum Wilson, Jack Grealish and Callum Hudson-Odoi are all on the fringes, while 2018 starting man Jesse Lingard is unlikely to make the cut next year, barring a terrific upsurge in form.
Moving further back in the team requires more scrutiny. It shouldn’t be forgotten that England were defeated 2-1 by the Czechs in Prague, nor should the lack of club form be downplayed among the defensive ranks.
There’s still plenty to be positive about in the backline, however.
Yes, even at the back
Leicester ace Ben Chilwell has been a stand-out performer in the Premier League this season.
Whisper it quietly, but he may have been the best full-back in the league this season… in a division led by full-back-inspired Liverpool.
Double-barrelled duo Trent Alexander-Arnold and Aaron Wan-Bissaka will scrap with Kyle Walker for a spot on the right side.
Harry Maguire continues to be Harry Maguire, though his displays for United are largely overshadowed by the club’s simmering turmoil.
John Stones is far from a lost cause, but in Tyrone Mings and Fikayo Tomori, Southgate’s prayers for centre-backs have been answered.
Both are comfortable on the ball, with Mings resembling an Aldi Van Dijk while Tomori’s stock is flying as Chelsea’s best option at the back.
Stones, Mings and Tomori battling for one place is a situation replicated across the pitch for England going into 2020 – a number of positions boast a number of options.
There will be no more ‘square peg, round hole’ situations (Ashley Young started the first England game of the 2018 World Cup in central midfield) next year, there will be no more squad fillers (we’re looking at you, Phil Jones), there will be a squad overflowing with young talent.
England have a stronger starting XI and greater depth than in 2018, going into a tournament with fewer elite-level teams. The logic is simple.
Sing it loud so the people at the back can hear… It’s Coming Home…