05/12/2023

The English national football team ahead of the 3-3 draw with Germany to end its Nations League campaign. (Photo: England Football)

Every four years it’s the same. The English drive themselves to distraction in preparation for the FIFA World Cup, as they wait in hope to see if their national team can finally ‘Bring Football Home’.

In just over six weeks’ time, this predictable ritual will commence once again, as the world’s most prestigious tournament rolls into Qatar for its latest instalment.

Fans of the English team have been growing in confidence in recent years, with their precious Three Lions making encouraging steps forward under manager Gareth Southgate.

A run to the semi-finals at the previous World Cup in Russia four years ago was followed by reaching the final in last year’s European Championships, falling at the final hurdle (on penalties – again) to winners Italy.

Yet in recent months, the optimism has turned to despair as England’s disastrous Nations League campaign has once again dampened expectations.

Their three-all draw at home to Germany at the end of September meant that Southgate’s side not only suffered the ignominy of relegation from the top tier of UEFA’s most recent international competition, but will also head to Qatar on the back of a six-game winless streak.   

So where has it all gone so wrong for the Three Lions – just 14 months on from that Euro final at Wembley – and what should their long-suffering fans expect from their team at this World Cup?

Is Southgate’s loyalty misguided?

One thing that manager Southgate has been lauded for during his six-year tenure as England manager is creating a positive team spirit, something that has allegedly been lacking in previous England squads.

The way he has done this to date has been to pick young players and then stick with them – Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips, Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire were all amongst those given their international debuts under Southgate – creating a bond with players he knows that he can trust and vice versa.

This policy seemed to be working in Russia and more recently the Euro 2020 championships, where his teams exceeded expectations partly due to familiarity of those around them, and partly out of fierce loyalty to their manager.

The problem in recent months has been that a number of those players are either hopelessly out of form or not playing regularly for their club sides (or both).

Midfielder Kalvin Phillips was a lynchpin of the Euro 2020 campaign, forming a solid partnership with Declan Rice in England’s engine room. Since moving to Manchester City in the summer, however, he has barely played a game due to a mixture of injury and the form of his City teammates.

An even bigger concern is central defender Harry Maguire, whose form at Manchester United has been so poor that he is now resigned to the bench despite being club captain. 

Defence is England’s Achilles heel

Maguire has been one of the first names of the team sheet in the Southgate era, but his low confidence was evident at Wembley when two of Germany’s three goals were due directly to his errors.

To make matters worse, the fans have turned on Maguire and he has been booed relentlessly during recent games, with many labelling him (justifiably at times) as the reason for recent defeats.

Although it would be harsh to lay all the blame on Maguire’s broad shoulders, it is true that central defence has proven England’s Achilles heel in recent months. Their lack of pace is being exposed, and picking Maguire is not helping solve this.

Southgate has a big decision to make come the first World Cup game against Iran in November, and will be well aware that his own reputation is becoming intrinsically linked to the United centre half’s fate.

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The great midfield hope is only 19

The issue with Phillips being out of form (and now injured) is less pressing of an issue, with England possessing a ready replacement in budding superstar Jude Bellingham.

Bellingham has blossomed in Borussia Dortmund’s youthful set up during the last 18 months, and is now seen as one of the best young midfielders in Europe.

Although being a different type of player to Phillips, capable of getting forward and scoring goals as well as winning the ball in central areas, he seems well suited to play alongside defensive midfielder Declan Rice, who is a certainty to start in Qatar.

The issue is not that Bellingham lacks class – he appears to a generational talent who could emulate his boyhood hero Steven Gerrard in years to come – but more his lack of experience in big tournaments.

Although playing regularly for Dortmund in the Champions League, Bellingham has never started for England at a major championship.

No matter how good he could potentially be, pinning your hopes on a 19-year-old with only a few substitute appearances in major tournament fixtures is factor that is causing pundits to doubt this England team.

No replacement for Kane

One area of the pitch where England does excel is in forward positions, with an embarrassment of riches in wide areas. Sterling, Saka, Grealish, Foden and Sancho are all in the mix to make the plane to Qatar, and all are capable of supplying the bullets for centre forward and captain Harry Kane.

However, one stat that is telling in recent months is that up until Luke Shaw netted late in the second half against Germany, England had not scored from open play for 520 minutes (nearly six entire games).

The issue seems to be an over reliance on Kane, who is undoubtedly one of Europe’s top strikers, but will be a heavily marked man in Qatar.

Although Kane himself got on the score sheet just minutes after Shaw – ironically from the penalty spot – opposition defences know that shutting him down (or even taking him out if we are being cynical) means severely restricting England, and that’s a worry.

Even more concerning is who might replace Kane if he gets injured, with only unproven Tammy Abraham and Ivan Toney, or a rusty Marcus Rashford in reserve.

All these reasons, combined with a glance at the draw for the knock-out stages, makes it unlikely that England will progress beyond the quarter-finals in Qatar.

While favourites to win a weak group that contains Iran, Wales and the United States, the Three Lions are likely to meet a resurgent France in the last eight.

Given their lack of defensive pace, this is a scary thought, especially given Les Bleus can count Kylian Mbappe amongst their ranks.

The French forward is one of the quickest strikers in world football, and the thought of him running at Maguire, Stones and co. with a World Cup semi-final on the line will not fill English fans with confidence.

That said, England is not without hope, and have some world class players amongst the ranks that will make any team sit up and take notice.

As ever, it’s a game of opinions, and no doubt many will differ with the conclusions above, but we’re betting that it will be at least another four years of hurt for the English before football has the slightest chance of coming home.

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