And so it ended. At the sixth attempt, at last, the beer stopped flying. Horns stopped honking. Cars on London’s celebratory streets roamed freely. Pale middle-aged men recovered their shirts, re-covered their torsos, downed the last of their World Cup pints, and called it a night. The summer sun, shining incessantly for three weeks, finally set.
So it ended, in Moscow, England’s captivating World Cup campaign tripped up at the penultimate hurdle. The fatal flaws, ultimately, were nothing new. The heartbreak was oh so familiar.
And in some corners, the same old pessimism will reign. This, like the 11 World Cups that came before it, was an opportunity squandered.
But this is not a story that commences and concludes in Russia. England’s first semifinal run since 1990 was not an isolated vignette.
This, rather, is a story about Gareth Southgate before you knew him; about two misguided men named Charles you’ll probably never know; and about dozens of kids you don’t yet know, but will in due course.
And this is not an end. It’s a beginning.
The men who temporarily ruined English soccer
Though it stumbled and crumbled under Croatian pressure, this England team truly was different. It was new. It was fresh. And its freshness was no accident.
This England team was the first nurtured outside the shadow of the single most damaging and disastrously flawed statistical study in soccer history. Conducted in the 1950s and 60s, its influence persisted for almost a half-century.
At the time, analytics were a foreign concept in soccer. Charles Reep, a former wing commander in Britain’s Royal Air Force, set out to change that. He documented almost 2,500 games by hand, tracking passing sequences and their outcomes. He found that roughly 80 percent of goals came at the end of attacking moves of three passes or fewer.
He concluded, therefore, that long and direct was the way to play. “Not more than three passes,” was his infamously oversimplified tactical advice.
The issue, of course, was that, per Reep’s own data, over 90 percent of attacking moves featured three or fewer passes. So the probability that a sequence of three or fewer passes would result in a goal was actually significantly lower than the corresponding probability for sequences of four passes or more.
Reep, however, failed to realize this. And with confirmation bias rampant, some of English soccer’s most powerful men blindly followed his command. Among his acolytes were Graham Taylor and, more importantly, Charles Hughes. Taylor managed England to a group stage crash at Euro 1992 and a failed 1994 World Cup qualification campaign thereafter. Hughes, though, did the lasting damage.
He became the English Football Association’s director of coaching, essentially the dean of the sport. And he was teaching it the wrong way. He wrote books, one of which cited Reep’s outdated and misinterpreted data. He penned the FA’s official coaching manual, effectively England’s soccer bible in the 90s. Wherever he went, he preached the long ball.
And for years, the rest of England’s soccer ecosystem fell in line. Youth coaches taught the long ball. Elite scouts looked for skills that would suit the rugged style – for physical attributes over technical and intangible ones. England was stuck in the dark ages. And only major tournament failure after major tournament failure finally compelled it to climb out.
The overhaul and the renaissance
The revolution began in the wake of Bloemfontein – after England’s 4-1 shellacking at the hands of Germany in 2010. The FA finally realized it had to change.
One of its first key hires was Southgate, as a new “head of elite development,” with a mandate to overhaul the way the game was taught at youth levels. Germany, France and Spain were his and the FA’s models.
“I played international football for England and in many games we were technically inferior,” he told the Guardian at the time. “Everybody looks at Barcelona and Spain and realizes we can’t keep playing the way we have and producing the English style of player. We have to grow and change.”
He and they did. Southgate only stayed in the role for 18 months, later becoming the under-21s coach in 2013. Dan Ashworth took the head of elite development post off his hands. Other new hires joined them to reform England’s youth setup, and to codify a new possession-based style in a document entitled “England DNA.”
Half a decade later, all the foundational changes are rising to the surface. All the streamlined messages. The consistent coaching. And, crucially, the philosophy no longer married to Reep’s middle-school-esque mathematical mistakes.
They’re rising to the surface in the form of results. The under-17s beat Brazil and Spain to claim their 2017 World Cup. The U-20s conquered their age group the same year. Both were firsts. The U-19s also triumphed at their European Championships. England youth teams, at almost all levels, currently sit atop the world. Tellingly, they’ve won with tempo and on-ball confidence, a curated fusion of athleticism and technique, just like their big brothers in Russia.
And while youth success doesn’t guarantee full international success, it’s immensely promising. “If we are successful at under-16 and under-17, the players will carry the mindset through to the senior team,” Southgate said upon joining the FA in 2011. How prescient.
The senior team – only nominally so, the third youngest in Russia – came up short on Wednesday. And frankly, it hadn’t played well enough to progress further. It had survived on set pieces. It was not the finished product.
But it wasn’t supposed to be. The project is ahead of schedule. “We’ve come an incredibly long way in a short space of time,” a defeated Southgate said in Moscow. “The whole thing is beyond where we thought we might go. Tonight we weren’t quite there.”
Soon enough, they will be.
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