What to make of England. To hear the outpouring of feverish sentiment from pundits in recent days following a workmanlike 1-0 win over Croatia, one would think that Gareth Southgate's side will merely need to turn up to beat Scotland this evening.

The England manager's decision to field Kieran Trippier, named in the La Liga team of the season for his swashbuckling displays as an advanced right-wing back, in a defensive position on the opposite of the pitch, was lauded as a tactical masterstroke. Another big tick? Southgate opted for a strong defensive shield by deploying two holding midfielders and it paid off as one of those pivots, Kalvin Phillips, set up the game's only goal for Raheem Sterling to secure the victory – England's first ever in an opening match at a European Championship – and secured a modicum of revenge for their defeat in the 2018 World Cup semi-final to the same opponents.

Make no mistake, though, Sunday's victory over Zlatko Dalic's side should not be considered overwhelming evidence that England have taken giant strides since then. Croatia are a shell of the team that reached the final in Russia three years ago. Going into the game Dalic's ageing squad had lost seven of their previous 13 international matches and two of their wins in that period had come against the combined might of Malta and Cyprus.

The average age of that World Cup squad was 27.9 but there has not been a massive infusion of fresh blood since then. Luka Modric is now 35 and while still an adroit performer he is not the omnipotent presence of old. Their 1-0 defeat at Wembley should be taken in that context especially since the statistics did not suggest some ritual massacre had taken place. The possession stats read 50% for both teams, the shots were eight apiece with two each on target and the sides shared two corners between them.


READ MORE: Alex McLeish: Scotland are down but they are not out ahead of England clash

Certainly, those numbers were backed up by the eye test. England started ferociously but the game settled into a more sedate pace with centre-back John Stones and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford at odds with each other on occasions over whether to build from the back or punt the ball long. Granted the 90-odd minutes were played out in sweltering conditions but this was not a performance that made you sit up and take notice.

Indeed Southgate himself tempered expectations when asked about the disagreements between Pickford and Stones by saying: “I think they were just deciding (what to do),” the England manager said. “We give them pictures and . . . we don’t have as long to work on those patterns as you do at a club, and also we’re one mistake away from it being more costly.”

It was a confession from Southgate that his team had been scruffy. Yet some of the buzz that accompanied the display afterwards felt a little over the top, almost as if there was an agreed script not to criticise what had been on display.

Indeed, Gary Neville seemed to lose all sense of perspective. Here he was hailing Southgate as “an outstanding international manager who has unbelievable experience”. His lauding of England's chances in the tournament overall were not to be tempered either. “I'd say the expectation should be to get to the semi-final or final,” he crowed.

Neville is a sentient individual, his dissection of Premier League football on Monday Night Football is compelling, can't-miss television but this was just the same old baseless tropes that had accompanied every English foray into an international tournament that preceded 2018.


READ MORE: The five things that Steve Clarke must do to if Scotland are to beat England at Wembley in Euro 2020

Should England finish top of Group D they are due to face the second-placed team in Group F – likely France, Germany or Portugal – with a potential quarter-final against Spain to come. Let's remind us that in reaching the World Cup semi-final three years ago, they beat Colombia on penalties and Sweden, before exiting at the hands of the one decent side they had to face.

Scotland travel to London this evening quite rightly as 10/1 underdogs – and the general expectation is that England will win with something to spare, a belief not dampened by one of Neville's fellow observers as he looked ahead to this evening.

“We could be in for an entertaining match, but I do feel it’ll be England who take the points. It’s 2-0 to the Three Lions for me,” said Michael Owen, the former England striker.

Writing in his book Deadlines and Darts with Dele, the Scottish journalist Jonathan Northcroft observed that “Southgate brought a thoughtfulness to the task of leading his country that put current politicians, never mind previous managers, to shame”.

In Russia, three years ago, there was a new approach to dealing with the traditionally hostile English press which has tended to lampoon England managers of the past.

For each media session, a player would be put up to play an impromptu game of darts with a member of the press. As Northcroft notes: it introduced the human side of the players to a sometimes hostile media and in turn had a disarming effect. Northcroft reasoned that having shared a personal moment with Dele Alli, got to know him and saw how affable he was it would much harder to pour scorn on a poor performance.


READ MORE: The Euro 2020 Diary: Covid chaos, Southgate's slip-up, enigmatic Embolo and contentious kits

In the aftermath of the win over Croatia, Neville claimed Southgate was England's biggest asset. It was certainly a bullish statement. But in a competition that has been kind to vastly experienced managers with more than two decades in a coaching role, it's a claim worth scrutinising. The 50-year-old Southgate has never won a major honour and only one head coach since 2000 – Roger Lemerre who was in charge of then world champions France – has won a Euros without a trophy on his CV. Furthermore, his 15 years' experience as a coach is two years fewer than Michel Hidalgo - the least experienced coach to win a Euros - had under his belt when he guided France to victory in 1984.

National fervour, jingoism and runaway expectations were traits that those connected with English football seemed to have shed during the 2018 World Cup. There was a more considered, conciliatory approach and it was reflected in their best performance in a finals tournament since Terry Venables' Three Lions reached the semi-final of Euro 96. Anyone who has watched ITV's coverage of this week's matches can't have failed to notice the repeated broadcasts of Scotland's 2-0 defeat at the hands of England at that tournament. Of course, the ultimate undoing in that year's finals was Venables's side buckling under the weight of expectation heaped on them by a nation. Ally McCoist, who played for Scotland in those finals, claimed this week that England should have won that tournament. He was right. Then, as now, England's biggest threat to success at an international football finals remains self-aggrandisement in the face of rational thought.