It’s been 52 years since England won the World Cup, it’s been more than a decade since they won a knockout match in an international football tournament. In fact, England have won only three knockout games at major tournaments in the past 25 years. “England can’t win penalty shootouts” has almost become as much as a truism in this sport as “at the end, the Germans always win."
In the last World Cup in Brazil, the Three Lions couldn’t even make it out of the group stage after slumping to defeats against Italy and Uruguay. Euro 2016 was hardly any better as England were knocked out in the Round of 16 after an underwhelming loss to Iceland.
And yet, as they embark on the quest to win just their second World Cup trophy, there are enough reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the current England national team and their chances in Russia.
How they got here
After the disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, England’s coaching reins were handed to Sam Allardyce but his tenure lasted just 67 days and one game as he was fired for making controversial comments to undercover reporters. The then U-21 manager, Gareth Southgate, was appointed caretaker and was eventually handed a permanent role.
In qualifying, England were in a fairly straightforward group against Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta and Scotland. They finished on top of the group with a comprehensive unbeaten record, winning eight and drawing two of their 10 games.
They conceded the least amount of goals (three) among all European countries in qualifying but had their fair share of struggles in front of goal, scoring the second-lowest number of goals (18) of any nation that topped their group.
Southgate has picked a young and inexperienced 23-man squad for the finals in Russia led by Tottenham Hotspur’s talisman Harry Kane. Kane is coming off one of the best league seasons of his career, having scored 41 goals in 48 appearances.
Also crucial to England’s success will be Raheem Sterling. Under Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City forward has blossomed and he is one of the most versatile players in the current England squad. Over the last season he scored 23 goals and assisted seven others, and was a match winner on multiple occasions for the Premier League champions.
Even though Southgate played with a 4-2-3-1 system during qualification, the coach is likely to opt for a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 in Russia. Southgate believes that this system is the best way to extract the most out of England’s talent and gives them stability.
Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire are likely to start at the back with Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier on the flanks. The midfield should feature two of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard or Ruben Loftus-Cheek with Jordan Henderson in the middle. Southgate could also opt for a more defensive midfield and have two holding midfielders to add protection for the backline.
Kane should start at the front with either Sterling or 20-year-old Marcus Rashford. Top scorer Danny Welbeck and Jamie Vardy are good attacking options to have on the bench as a Plan B.
The biggest advantage that the England squad enjoys is that there are no aging superstars. There isn’t a single player who has been picked on the basis of reputation, past achievements or loyalty.
Whatever England do manage in Russia, one thing is sure — there will be no repeat of World Cup 2014, where a 34-year-old Steven Gerrard dragged the team down, or Euro 2016, where a 30-year-old Wayne Rooney on the wane failed to make any impact in the midfield. In this current squad, there are no egos to be massaged, no personalities to be pleased and that alone could be England’s biggest strength.
The average age of the group of players that have been picked is 25.6 years and a lot of them are at the peak of their careers. They are ambitious, passionate and dynamic, which is such a welcome change from the squads of the past decade and a half.
There is also a sense of cohesiveness in the squad some of these footballers have been playing together for one club under a big-name manager — Tottenham has five players in the 23-man squad, while Manchester City and United have four each.
Moreover, Southgate has shown that he is not averse to making bold decisions for the benefit of the team. Dropping Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere on their lack of form, switching formations for stability and surprisingly including a couple of youngsters like Loftus-Cheek and Trent Alexander-Arnold are some of the examples of his sensible leadership.
While the team is fresh and young, it is also quite inexperienced at the big stage. The average number of caps in the starting XI is 22.5, the fewest of any England team of the past 52 years. Jordan Pickford, the No 1 goalkeeper, is set to make his competitive international debut when England play Tunisia in their first match on 18 June.
The three-man defence that Southgate's determined to play in Russia hasn’t been tested in competitive games or against tough opponents. Another concern is the lack of an established, recognised set-piece taker in the starting XI. There is plenty for Southgate to mull over before the Three Lions set foot in the Volgograd Arena.
Can England win the World Cup?
England’s path till the Round of 16 should be relatively uncomplicated on paper. They have been drawn in Group G with Belgium, Tunisia and Panama. While the latter two shouldn’t prove to be challenging, England’s first big test will be against the golden generation of Belgian footballers.
Even if England are unable to beat Belgium and end up finishing second in the group, their Round of 16 opponents will come from Group H comprising of Colombia, Poland, Japan and Senegal. If they manage to make it to the quarter-finals, leading tournament favourites Germany or Brazil are likely to meet them.
In 2010, when Spain won the World Cup, Pep Guardiola was the manager of Barcelona in the Spanish league; in 2014, when Germany won the World Cup, Guardiola was the manager of Bayern Munich in the German league. And in 2018 he is the manager of Manchester City in the English Premier League.
Now you may be wondering, what does such ridiculous trivia have to do with England’s chances. However, if you are an England fan (and my heartfelt sympathies for that), this is exactly what you need to cement your faith in the Three Lions’ shot at glory in Russia.
The tempered expectations and zero pre-tournament hype may just work in England’s favour and they could surprise everyone with a semi-final run. Anything beyond that would be an unrealistic dream as this team is not developed yet to match the traditional heavyweights of football.
Goalkeepers: Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope
Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gary Cahill, Fabian Delph, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Danny Rose, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Ashley Young
Midfielders: Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Jesse Lingard, Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Forwards: Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy, Danny Welbeck
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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2018 18:01:58 IST