12 months ago in Nice, England suffered arguably their worst humiliation since 1950, losing 2-1 to the spirited underdogs of Iceland. Feelings of cynicism and mistrust towards the England team, which have festered for decades, became even more prominent. Fans felt alienated that such well-paid individuals could not stand up for their country and show a fraction of the desire that we saw from Strákarnir okkar. Throw in the Sam Allardyce debacle that followed within three months of Roy Hodgson’s inevitable resignation and Gareth Southgate was dealt a rough hand.
And yet, his first nine months in charge have provided encouraging signs. We have seen the team ease towards qualification for the 2018 World Cup, with many issues from the regimes of Roy Hodgson and others seemingly put to bed.
Previous managers including Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren all at times shoehorned in big-name players, without considering the tactical balance of the side. Hodgson started Wayne Rooney at the Euros, but he also wanted to play Dele Alli after the season he had enjoyed as well as two strikers, due to the strength in that area. The outcome was a disjointed side with too many players trying to do similar jobs, which was partly responsible for the hesitancy the team showed when approaching the final third.
For Southgate to loosen the shackles on England’s younger (bar Jamie Vardy) and best attacking players, it was clear Rooney had to be dropped from the squad. That was not an easy decision to make about the team’s most recent captain, who for 12 years has been untouchable, but it was the right one.
The Three Lions, who as of 08th June are 20/1 to win the next World Cup with Betway, will have more width with Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who both started the 2-0 win over Lithuania, included in the squad. They enjoyed good 16/17 seasons at top clubs and have the versatility to attack the flank at pace, when too many players at the Euros only wanted to operate in central areas.
If there was one criticism of the team’s first six games under Southgate, it would be the need for better finishing. England perhaps shaded their friendly with Germany but failed to net and were undone by a fitting Lukas Podolski screamer and could have netted more than two against Lithuania. Some of this profligacy can be attributed to the absence of Harry Kane, a complete striker who has scored 99 goals in three years, leading some to dub him world-class.
Joe Hart’s status as a world-class goalkeeper has been tarnished somewhat by an unconvincing end to his Man City career and a mixed spell on loan at Torino. However, he has only conceded one goal in 585 minutes since the Euros and could have done little about Podolski’s strike in Dortmund. By contrast, Tom Heaton has had a better season at club level, but struggled in his 45-minute outing against Spain, letting in two goals that saw England throw away a comfortable lead.
Were Heaton younger than Hart, patience may be needed but he is one-year older at 31. Southgate is better off persisting with a goalkeeper who is at home playing for his country and has experience of winning titles, something perhaps lacking in the squad.
Gary Cahill has won six major honours as a regular with Chelsea and, after leading last year’s Premier League champions commandingly, is deserving of the captaincy. The best partner for Cahill could be Eric Dier or Rob Holding, possibly both with each of the trio used to playing in a back-three.
The wing-back system showed potential against Germany and suits the skillset of the full-backs in the squad. Kyle Walker is used to playing in a 3-4-3 for Tottenham and while club teammate Danny Rose is less familiar due to a coinciding injury, he has the energy to adapt. The same can be said of back-ups Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand, the latter often positioned further forward than central midfielders at Southampton.
Providing the licence for these players to attack, either as wing-backs or full-backs, could be Jordan Henderson. The 26-year-old has missed the last four months through injury but when fit, he has proved a consistent and dependable performer at Liverpool. Bar Idrissa Gana Gueye, Henderson won more tackles per game (3.7) than any Premier League player last season and averages by far the most passes per game (85.7), according to WhoScored. Though number of passes does not tell you everything, a player who can gain a steady handle on the midfield is useful when entwined with more creative types.
One of those is club teammate Adam Lallana, who has also impressed for the Reds this term with his intelligent movement and clever footwork in tight areas. Lallana has looked at home against the might of Spain and Germany, but faces competition for the same position in Alli, the Premier League’s highest-scoring non-striker last term with 18 goals.
At least one of Chamberlain and Sterling, who can fit into many different roles, are likely to start in Russia, which means one of Alli and Lallana may have to miss out. Alli has age and goalscoring statistics on his side, but Lallana is more adaptable and tends to have greater influence in the middle third.
Thanks to a resurgence in English talent over the last three years, the Lallana or Alli debate demonstrates the wide array of impressive players England now possess. Added to that, we now have a manager we can trust to pick out the players that will give the team the best balance, not necessarily those of the highest-profile. The current national mood of weariness towards England is understandable, but if we look in the right places, there may be room for a little cautious optimism.