Despite England’s historical roster having included superstars such as Gary Lineker, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, and Wayne Rooney, the national team hasn’t won the World Cup since 1966. Since then, England and its fans have experienced over a half-century of gut-wrenching disappointments – notable among these is the 2-1 defeat to Argentina in 1986, partly attributable to Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” goal.
A couple of decades later, under manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, the world witnessed the “Golden Generation” yield little except for scads of glamour shots with their “WAGs”. Most recently in the 2016 European Championship, England meekly capitulated to Iceland, and this disaster may or may not represent a new all-time low.
For these historic reasons and many more, every player who puts on the shirt to play for England suddenly gains a half-century of emotional baggage.
The one encouraging signal I’ve seen from the current England squad is that none of them carries the ominous swagger of previous players to wear the national shirt. No one expects anything from them, and if they crawl even halfway out of this dark cellar of pessimism, they’ll be moderately pleased with themselves.
The road to Russia
In qualifying for the World Cup 2018, England ditched previous manager Roy Hodgson, experimented with Sam Allardyce – who crashed out after only one match and a pint of wine – and then appointed the current manager Gareth Southgate, who has acquitted himself with relative poise and dignity. The team finished top of a group composed of Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Scotland, and Malta. They will start the tournament in Group G with Belgium, Panama, and Tunisia. The happy, uplifting part of the narrative most likely concludes at this chapter.
How do they play?
England conceded very few goals while qualifying for the tournament, and ended with eight wins, two draws, and zero losses. That said, don’t go thinking that defence will be the team’s great asset in Russia. England will struggle mightily to shut down top teams.
Southgate is likely to use a 4-4-1-1 formation. That puts attacking responsibilities squarely on Harry Kane’s shoulders, with Dele Alli behind him, and the media-hounded Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as the supporting firepower on the wings.
It is often said that games are won or lost in the midfield. If this is so, England look to be in trouble. Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Tottenham’s Eric Dier are expected to anchor the midfield, and while they both contribute valiantly to their club sides, on the international stage, they will be totally outclassed. In this position, Spain will field the likes of David Silva; Belgium will offer up Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard; Germany will call upon Toni Kroos – and I could go on. England lack true creativity and invention in midfield, and the best we can hope for is industriousness and reliability.
Who is their star player?
When it comes to assessing who is a “world class” player in any squad, I try this simple thought exercise: would Real Madrid or Barcelona buy this player? When it comes to England, you can go through the entire squad and you won’t respond with “Maybe!” until you get to big Harry Kane. I would also make a case for Raheem Sterling, who gets better every season, and has been a major part of Manchester City’s lethal strike force this season.
And there ends the list of England’s star players.
How far will they go?
It would be astounding for England to advance beyond the Round of 16. A quarter-finals appearance must be considered a success. Semis = deliriously happy. England’s first major test will come on June 28 against Belgium, a team with an embarrassment of attacking riches. If England’s defence can show a modicum of competency, then the tournament might not end with a whimper.
What should we watch out for?
As a Liverpool fan, I hope for a good tournament from the full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold as one of the few players who might surpass expectations and cause a ruckus where it’s not expected. He’s great at tearing down the wing and getting a good connecting ball into the box. In goal, England have finally parted ways with Joe Hart, and Everton’s Jordan Pickford will be the #1. He will surely be hungry to impress. England might also benefit from the preponderance of Tottenham players in the team (Kane, Alli, Dier, Rose, Trippier) whose familiarity with each other might create the kind of fluidity that usually eludes those who wear Saint George’s Cross.