England can reflect on arguably their best year of international football outside of 1966 as 2021 draws to a close.
The Three Lions came within a penalty shoot-out of only their second major trophy, matched their highest ever FIFA world ranking and both scored more goals and kept more clean sheets than ever before – admittedly while playing two more matches than their previous high.
Sir Alf Ramsay’s World Cup winners provide the point of comparison in most regards and here, the PA news agency assesses Gareth Southgate’s team’s statistical claim as one of the best in England’s history.
England won 15 and drew four of their record 19 games this year – although the “unbeaten” record is marred in the most painful way by their defeat to Italy on penalties in the delayed Euro 2020 final.
They topped their World Cup qualifying group on 26 points and peaked at a world ranking of third in September, a mark they had only previously achieved in August and September 2012.
Their progress to UEFA’s showpiece occasion, on home turf at Wembley, followed their run to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 and has raised expectations for next year’s global tournament in Qatar.
November’s 10-0 win over San Marino was only the sixth time England have scored double figures in a game and the first since 1964, and took England to a national record 52 goals for the year.
They also produced three five-goal hauls – against San Marino again, Andorra and Albania – and three fours, against Ukraine in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals and Hungary and Andorra in World Cup qualifying, while the goalless draw with Scotland in the Euro group stage was the only time all year England failed to score.
Captain Harry Kane continues to climb the ranks of England’s all-time scorers, with November’s three goals against Albania and four against San Marino taking him to 16 in as many appearances this year and 48 for his international career – now joint third all-time with fellow Tottenham hero Gary Lineker and five off Wayne Rooney’s record of 53.
He also recorded double figures in a calendar year for the second time, only the second England player to do so after Vivian Woodward in 1908 and 1909, and passed Rooney’s record of goals in competitive fixtures with 43.
Raheem Sterling contributed five goals, a total matched by defender Harry Maguire, while Bukayo Saka netted four times. There were 19 different scorers in all, in addition to own goals from Denmark’s Simon Kjaer and San Marino’s Filippo Fabbri.
Southgate’s side have been historically impressive at the other end too, with only five goals conceded all year and a national record 14 clean sheets.
The 1966 side anchored by Gordon Banks held the record previously with 11 clean sheets in 17 games, conceding nine goals along the way including two to West Germany in the World Cup final and three in a 4-3 win over Scotland.
This year’s vintage matched and then surpassed their mark in September and October’s two meetings with Andorra before adding to their total against Albania and San Marino.
They have done so while switching between defensive systems and with four different goalkeepers involved, with first choice Jordan Pickford accounting for eight shut-outs and Sam Johnstone three in between Nick Pope keeping the first two of the year and Aaron Ramsdale the last.
The Euro 2020 campaign saw England win their group, last 16 clash and quarter-final without conceding before Denmark’s Mikkel Damsgaard and, crucially, Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci broke through. Poland duo Jakub Moder and Damian Szymanski, in separate World Cup qualifiers, and Hungary’s Roland Sallai from a penalty were the only other opposing goalscorers.
Pickford went 726 minutes without conceding and England kept seven straight clean sheets – both national records – before Damsgaard’s goal and England trailed only twice all year, to Denmark and Hungary, for a combined 22 minutes.
Southgate has called on 38 players this year, Kane leading the way with 16 appearances and Sterling 14. Maguire and Saka were the only other players to reach double figures for appearances.
Eight players made debuts and eight scored their first international goals, with Ollie Watkins and Emile Smith Rowe appearing on both lists.
Ben Godfrey, Ben White, Johnstone, Patrick Bamford, Ramsdale and Conor Gallagher were the other debutants with first goals for James Ward-Prowse, Saka, Jordan Henderson in his 62nd cap, Luke Shaw in the Euro final, Ben Chilwell and Jack Grealish.