England ticked the boxes but did they need to win this World Cup enough?

This time, there would be no Andrea Pirlo masterclass. Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil did not cut England to ribbons. Nobody got a red card. No classic shootout malaise. There was not an Icelandic player in sight at Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday night, unless one of them had somehow managed to buy a ticket. No familiar second-half regression, no midfield collapse.

In short, there are no easy targets here, no effigies to burn. The common consensus, indeed, is that England played well. Which is nice. It’s lovely that England played well. England have been playing well for a few years now. And yet the result was the same that Roy Hodgson’s side achieved in 2012, the same as three Sven-Göran Eriksson sides, the same as Diego Maradona’s Argentina in 2010 and Germany in 1994. Which leads to a pointed and open-ended question: does any of the above really matter?

In essence, this is a question about what sort of footballing nation England wants to be these days. How much do England really need to win one of these tournaments? How should we want to measure success and failure? Where should we be pitching our expectations?

I use the first person here because really these are questions for all of us to answer: not just players and coaches and administrators and the media but fans and the public. There is a common view out there which seems to be that this time we can spare ourselves the finger-pointing and vindictiveness, set aside the lust for purgation and new blood, and simply applaud a fine performance by a fine team against slightly better opponents. This, in itself, probably represents progress. Top eight in the world: this is not a bad thing. Perhaps this is enough. Perhaps this is fine.

This is why the defeat by France was so interesting on so many levels. If you were predisposed to giving England the benefit of the doubt, you have pretty much every escape clause in the book available to you. A top-tier opposition, perhaps even the best in the world. The right team selection. A brave, forward-oriented system and a good performance. A strong run of results to get there in the first place. No misdemeanours or avoidable blunders or squad rifts or off‑field disgrace. A certain degree of misfortune in the refereeing decisions that went against England. Even the key passage of play came from a genuine unicorn event: Harry Kane missing a pressure penalty.

England ticked all the boxes here, and in so doing generated about as palatable a tournament defeat as it is possible to conceive. But of course these expectations and judgments do not occur in a vacuum. They create the emotional weather around a team, who can sense on some deep subconscious level what the reaction to success or failure will be. England players of the past have talked of playing in tournament games and being able to envision the public and media uproar even before it happened.

And so is it possible that on some deeply unconscious level, the very concept of a palatable defeat can somehow self-prophesy it? Or, put more bluntly: did England’s players and Gareth Southgate need to win this World Cup enough? Did they need to win it like Lionel Messi so clearly needs to win it? Wanting it, striving for it, trying your hardest, is one thing. But should England be more than simply proud and disappointed? Because if the goal of Southgate’s England is to win a trophy at any cost, then quite clearly it is not working.

But of course there are other perfectly noble and legitimate aims for a national football team. Connection with the fans and the broader public. Self-expression and pride. Making the journey as worthwhile as the destination. Indeed for about 95% of the world’s nations the goal is simply to challenge, to give it everything, to keep improving.

The debate over Southgate’s future seems to encapsulate this. Take Morocco, for example, who have just reached the semi-finals with a coach they hired four months ago. Not everything has to be a holistic process of growth, learning and empowerment. Sometimes you really just do need to get some talented guys in a room, shout a few things and play like the hounds of hell for four weeks.

Maybe Southgate is the guy to do this. Maybe he isn’t. Maybe the next step is to take a leaf out of the Lionesses’ book and recognise when a longstanding mental block requires an outside influence. For all the improvements made by Mark Sampson and Phil Neville, it took Sarina Wiegman, a coach who had been to the top step of the podium before, to get them over the line.

What is more important by far is a group of players able to make their own decisions on the pitch, able to recognise the kill when it is in their sights. Perhaps it is worth noting that the dominant coaching influence in the France squad is Carlo Ancelotti, the king of the knockout competition. Six of them have played for him at Paris or Madrid (seven if you include Karim Benzema, originally named before injury).

By contrast the dominant influence in the England squad is Pep Guardiola, the king of the process. That dynamic was in evidence again here: like a Guardiola side, England simply carried on their work, in the conviction that eventually the balance of play would reward them. If England v France were played over a 38-game league season, England would probably be champions. But France, like Ancelotti, grasp that actually you only get to play it once.

If you are a five-time champion such as Brazil or a smaller nation such as Wales, perhaps this is an easier call to make. But for England, whose self-image is wrapped up in all sorts of contradictory motifs – colonial heritage and postcolonial angst, nationalism and internationalism, Premier League wealth and local tribalism – it has often been the very source of their confusion.

Perhaps this all strikes you as slightly nebulous, a little pseudo‑psychological. In fact it is the one fundamental question that every national sporting team must address before all others: what do we actually want?