Of all the major footballing nations, England have arguably been the biggest under-performers in recent international tournament history. Frequently blessed with a favorable qualification group, England have been a constant at World Cups and European Championships since last missing out in 2008. Yet, the Three Lions never quite reach the heights that a team of their caliber should. Just two years ago, they were eliminated by Iceland at Euro 2016.
England’s new coach, Gareth Southgate, has inherited a wildly talented, albeit young, group, and will be hoping to buck the trend guide them to success in Russia. And for the first time in a number of years, the England squad has the requisite combination of talent and adaptability to get it done on the grandest stage in sport.
A new type of England squad
Thinking back to the last four major tournaments, England had some notable stars in their team. The golden generation of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and John Terry might have been midway through, or towards the end of, their illustrious careers, but each had the quality necessary to secure valuable wins. Each, after all, had exhibited an ability to compete at the highest levels with their respective clubs, both in the Premier League and Champions League.
But notwithstanding the presence of such generational talent, England’s finest frequently failed to threaten, and the squad was sorely lacking in depth. Many players had their spots in the starting XI locked down. Real competition within the squad was notably absent.
Southgate’s squad for Russia 2018 stands in stark contrast to those that have gone before it in recent tournaments. Looking at this collection of players, it is altogether difficult to predict a starting XI. Southgate simply has a plethora of talented players to pick from at each position.
Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ashley Young, and Danny Rose will all compete for wing back spots. Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Fabian Delph, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be aiming to lock down a center midfield role. It will also be difficult to play Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling, and Deli Alli at the same time. Even up front, Harry Kane will have to fend off Jamie Vardy, Danny Welbeck, and Marcus Rashford for the start. The depth that England now possess is truly enviable, arguably bettered only by the likes of Germany, France, Spain, and Brazil.
A broader range of talent
Moreover, England not only have more depth, but also possess a wider range of talents in their squad. As much as they have an abundance of quality in each position, every player is unique and can bring something different to the table. In the past, England didn’t have this variety — for instance, Lampard and Gerrard, while exceptional athletes, were very similar players. Now that there is such a variety of talents, Southgate will be able to exhibit flexibility in his selection, fielding teams based on the requirements of the situation at-hand.
He can adapt the shape and feel of the team to take on any opponent. In midfield, Delph brings an engine, as well as flexibility in terms of the position he can be effective. Loftus-Cheek brings size, strength, and power to what is quite a diminutive midfield lineup.
Even when comparing players that are “similar”, we see different attributes. Lingard and Rashford have Manchester United links, and both will take on a man, aiming to beat him and provide a cross for the striker or try and work the keeper from wide. Contrastingly, Alli and Kane will aim to utilize their understanding from Spurs, and play some one touch, aiming to find a yard of space to take a shot. Welbeck and Vardy are arguably a mixture of the two, and will utilize their pace on the counter as well. Young will put in a cross from the full back spot, Walker will try and work it in. Dier will be a rock in front of the back line, Henderson will push on and look for a decisive, killer pass. The list is endless. The different attributes and qualities in the squad are endless. This is something new for England, and something that is very exciting.
No more passengers
Another aspect of the England squad that has changed recently is that there is no longer any space to carry anyone. In previous squads, there have been three or four players who haven’t really contributed. Today, every player that steps onto the field for the Three Lions looks talented and dangerous. The deadweight has gone.
A perfect example of this is Joe Hart. From 2010 to 2015, Hart had the gloves all to himself for England. He didn’t need to prove himself day in and day out at training and at club level. His quality dropped because of the lack of competition. Now, with the prowess of Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford, and Nick Pope, Hart no longer has a spot in the team, and barring some kind of revival of his form, likely never will again. A further example is at center back. Even forgetting the John Terry days, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill, and Chris Smalling all played almost all of the games in 2014 and 2016 at center back. They were always going to get the call, their positions were never in doubt. Again, they never needed to show their quality on a regular basis, therefore it declined, leading to the mishaps in both Brazil and France over the last few years.
The result, now, is that both Jones and Cahill will potentially not start in the England side in Russia, and Smalling missed out on the trip altogether. There is nothing wrong with some healthy competition within a squad, and this is another thing that has been missing in England teams in recent years. Now that each of the 23 players will be competing with each other for the start in every game, the team will look a lot sharper on the field, as well as potentially be much tighter knit when it comes to off the field bonding. A team that enjoys each others’ company off the field will fight for one another on the field too. This is something that cannot be trained, and England are in a fantastic position to utilize this understanding and kinship between players to great effect in Russia.
A change in mindset
There have been some huge changes in mindset in the English program, some changes that have needed to occur for years. Now that these things have developed and come to fruition, and with the talent in the team, England are the powerhouse they used to always be. This is an England team that I have never seen before. They play with passion, intensity, and no fear.
Finally, it seems that England have a collective goal and are all working together to try and achieve that vision. Coach Southgate is a young, hungry coach who is not afraid to call it like it is, and can also manage big egos very well. He is the ideal man to be leading this particular group heading into Russia next week. England have all the pieces to be a World Cup winning team. Now, they need to live up to the hype. They need to show the world just how much they want to prove the doubters wrong, and finally grab some silverware after such a long drought. Watch out for the Three Lions in Russia. They could go all the way.