The World Cup beckons, with just seven months to go the inevitable hype around the English team will start to build.
As usual, it will swell until in the minds of many English fans they will at least be amongst the favourites to lift the trophy in Russia. So will the hype be valid and will this World Cup provide anything different to a footballing country that aspires so desperately to replicate the single success of 1966? Fancy England winning the world cup?
Let’s start with some positives…
The English youth teams have performed remarkably in recent years and have succeeded in doing what the senior ‘golden generation’ of players failed to do, win major tournaments.
Recent wins by the Under 21s at the Toulon Tournament and the Under 17s winning the 2017 World Cup ushers in a new generation of optimism for the English faithful. With many pundits commenting on the increased level of skill and control within the youth ranks, no doubt a result of initiatives run at youth level in order to replicate the abilities of recent successful Spanish and Brazilian teams.
The key challenge facing this promising crop of players is ensuring they are provided with enough first team opportunities in the Premier League. Allowing these players to dwindle in the reserves of some of the Premier League major teams can only have a detrimental effect on their development.
Since the introduction of billionaire owners to the Premier League, too much money has been offered for young players too soon, resulting in a number of talented individuals playing largely restricted roles. A solution is difficult, but the problem is real.
So what about the team that will travel to Russia…
Over the last 4 years the senior team has now fully evolved from the ‘golden generation’ of players. With the final few senior players such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard making way for emerging talent such as Dele Ali, Harry Kane and Kyle Walker.
The hope is that the scars of previous World Cup exits have gone with them. The poor performance at the EURO two years ago was marked by many as a team in transition, albeit the performance was very disappointing which cost the manager his job.
Via a bizarre cameo by Sam Allardyce, the burden has fallen on Gareth Southgate to guide a young group of players. Southgate made it clear that to be in the England team players must be making regular first team appearances, hence the expectation is the squad travelling to Russia will consist of fit players with a solid season of football behind them. So let’s break the squad down and see what Southgate will have to work with next summer.
With the inclusion of Jordan Pickford, the goalkeeping department is probably slightly stronger than four years ago, however it seems despite a turbulent few years Southgate is set on sticking with Joe Hart between the posts. However, a few mistakes by Hart before the end of the season could easily see Pickford start in Russia.
Overall, slight improvement.
The centre of defence will not have changed a great deal since the last World Cup, with the likely contenders being Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling (Michael Keane may get a look in also).
With an additional four years experience behind them, they will need a solid tournament to protect the keeper against the array of attacking talent they will line up against; especially against Belgium in the group stages.
The real improvement in the England squad can be found in the full backs. The emergence of Walker, Nathaniel Clyne and Kieran Trippier provides a set of attacking full back options with pace and skill. They have the ability to provide a serious attacking outlet to an English side that often lacks creativity.
Overall, slight improvement.
A consistent problem for England over many years has been the midfield. Even during the years of Lampard and Gerrard, they were plagued with constant criticism regarding their commitment and performance in an England shirt, criticism that was often too harsh.
The current crop lacks a world class midfielder. Teams such as Germany, Spain, Brazil and France process individuals that are far more technically skilled than their English counterparts.
In past tournaments, we have been outclassed in the midfield, most noticeably against the Italians in the last World Cup, where Andrea Pirlo controlled the game. The likes of Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier will not install fear in serious opposition and we are once again likely to struggle to control possession against the better teams.
Attacking midfielders such as Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are so inconsistent they never carry a persistent threat. The emergence of Alli is a positive, a clear match winner, the World Cup provides him with a platform to make himself into a global superstar. If England are to progress deep into the competition, he will need to play well.
Overall, the midfield is still poor compared to the competition.
This is where England have the closest thing to a world class player, Harry Kane. The team have a reliance on him this summer to score goals to progress through the tournament, against the better teams’ chances will be limited and hence it is vital he is on song to take any openings. Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford offer dynamic, hardworking partners which can create space and opportunities for Kane.
Compared to the last World Cup England have a better front line than before.
AS A TEAM
The lack of confidence in the big games seems to have marred the English team for the past couple of decades. England have had very few, good results in major tournaments since Euro 1996.
For whatever reason the English team seem to be burdened by a pressure not felt by other teams, maybe formed out the false expectation that we are a favourite, or maybe based on the media backlash that follows every tournament exit.
England are a squad full of quality players, the problem is the competition has squads consisting of one or multiple superstars, backed up by quality players. England will certainly have a chance in Russia, on their day they are capable of beating anyone, however the expectation on the team needs to be managed as it is likely that the huge pressure placed on the players and manager is actually a factor in their failure.