Opinion: This was England's big chance – it might never be this good again

England's World Cup 2018 run is almost over.

One more game against Belgium remains, an ultimately meaningless third-place playoff, and the dream of it ‘coming home’ has been stamped out.

For the first time in more than two decades, England can return home having not embarrassed themselves, with Iceland still a scar in the back of most people’s minds, and a group stage exit the result at the previous World Cup in Brazil.

There are a lot of positives to take: pride has been restored in the national team, the penalty shootout hoodoo has been banished, and there is a sense of togetherness within the squad, minus the cliques that had existed for at least the last 16 years, which can only be a good thing.

A feeling of disappointment at going out, though, is only amplified by the knowledge that this was the year, if England are going to win the World Cup, that it had to be done.

Never again will a route to the final be so routine; never again will such a chance present itself.

Make no mistake: this was a huge opportunity that has been wasted by not getting over the line.

Attack faltering

Generally speaking, the main issue most observers saw with England prior to the tournament was in defence, but it was the attack who ended up being found wanting.

Just as the criticism of Raheem Sterling has been massively over the top, from firearm tattoos to the purchasing of clothing from Primark, many have sought to balance that out with exaggerated and undeterred praise.

Gareth Southgate’s system undoubtedly works better with him, and his running in behind creates space for others to exploit, but at some point, the ball has to find the back of the net. He has not scored for England since 2015, and barely mustered a shot on target in the tournament.

There is probably room for one such player in every team, but for England, with such a dearth of goals from open play, having Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard alongside him, who essentially offer similar threats without being prolific, a little more is needed.

England only had six shots on target excluding set-pieces in their entire time in Russia before their exit was confirmed.

Relying on set-pieces for a small amount of goals is normal, but becoming overly reliant on them as the main source of goals is a recipe for disaster.

Harry Kane had a good tournament in terms of goal scoring, but in the semi-final was anonymous. Four of his six goals, that may well be sufficient to win him the Golden Boot, were from the penalty spot, and half of them came against Panama.

England lack a true number 10 - someone to create without the need for a dead ball situation and someone to control a game by keeping possession.

When pressed by Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic in particular on Wednesday, especially from the second half onwards, the ball was invariably and aimlessly lumped forward, only to inevitably come straight back.

Unfortunate with injuries, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Harry Winks would have helped, but in their absence, England looked old fashioned.

The sneers from Sime Vrsaljko at full-time, who claimed England resorted to long punts forward when put under pressure, just as they have done for years, were harsh, but ultimately fair.

Jordan Pickford has been exceptional in Russia, but his kicks forward were hopeful at best, while Kyle Walker looked flustered and even John Stones lost some composure. It was a stark contrast to Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic strutting around for the opposition.

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Increased expectations

What will be forgotten in tournaments to come is that England's route to the semi-final was a relatively straightforward one.

Of course, you can only beat what is in front of you, but the fact is that England played two good teams in Russia – Belgium and Croatia – and lost on both occasions.

When Euro 2020 comes around, expectations will be raised on the basis that England reached the semi-finals, but the reality is somewhat different.

In terms of the stage of the competition they reached, England overachieved; in terms of the teams they beat in the process, it was a par performance at best.

It could be argued that England have a better squad than Croatia, but it was not Southgate’s side who prevailed.

They were always expected to beat Colombia and Sweden.

The inescapable truth is that the World Cup opened up for England like it never will do again, and this is a huge chance squandered.

Phil Foden, Rhian Brewster, Jadon Sancho and Ryan Sessegnon provide hope that England can produce a new level of talent in time for tournaments to come, but if they are to reach the same stage of tournaments in future, they will have a harder task to do so, without the help of a freakishly one-sided knockout stage and the capitulation of nations like Germany and Argentina.

The UEFA Nations League, the new, much-needed replacement for pointless international friendlies, kicks off at the start of September. England face Spain and Croatia home and away before Christmas, and it might well serve as a reality check.

If England were going to win a major tournament in the near future, this was their chance.

They might not be this successful in tournaments again for some time.