England World Cup preview

World Cup

Tournament football has not been easy for England over the last decade. After missing out on Euro 2008, the Three Lions have failed to deliver at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, being outclassed by Germany in the last 16 in South Africa and then falling embarrassingly short four years ago in Brazil.

Their subsequent diabolical defeat to Iceland in the last 16 of Euro 2016 has perhaps allowed the current crop some slack heading to Russia and the media is refusing to get carried away.

For all the talent the country has produced over the years, England have been perennial underachievers and their price of 21.00 hints at the scepticism surrounding them. It is now 52 years since Bobby Moore hoisted the World Cup aloft on a glorious day at Wembley.

A fourth place at Italia ’90 is the only other occasion they have made the semi-finals and the hectic nature of the Premier League could again prove a hindrance.

Interestingly, England are one of just two nations, the other being Saudi Arabia, not to feature a single player who plays outside of their home country and there is a school of thought that sending players abroad could improve the team tactically.

As has become par for the course, England qualified with ease, avoiding defeat on their way to taking 26 points from a possible 30 from a group that included Slovakia, Slovenia and the Auld Enemy Scotland.

They have since recorded draws against Germany, Brazil and Italy, as well as a win over the Netherlands. Conceding only one goal in that run suggests Gareth Southgate’s three-man defence is working, providing extra cover as they look to build from the back, while also helping mask England’s traditional lack of creativity in midfield.

A flexible coach for a flexible team

Manager Gareth Southgate was perhaps the tonic the squad needed. The 47-year-old took charge on the back of Sam Allardyce’s short-lived reign and having developed a number of his players while in charge of the under-21s, has made no secret of his intention to use this tournament as a stepping stone.

He is also not afraid to make big calls, with both captain Wayne Rooney and long-term number one Joe Hart biting the dust during his reign.

Southgate is unbeaten at the time of writing and his switch to a 3-4-3 seems to be paying dividends with his players enjoying the extra flexibility afforded to them.

The coach is a strong advocate of playing out from the back and seems to be implementing a long-term plan after two decades or so of shoehorning players into a particular shape.

This change of formation allows him to alternate between a high press against teams who defend deep, while also being able to play a flat back five against attacking sides.

Can Southgate’s tactical switches inspire his side?

Questions undoubtedly linger though, with a number of doubts over who will make the starting XI for the Three Lions’ June 18 opener against Tunisia in Volgograd.

Everton’s Jordan Pickford looks set to start in goal, despite not having played a competitive international, with understudies Jack Butland and Nick Pope of Stoke and Burnley respectively also lacking experience.

Defensively things look a little better. John Stones has had a mixed season for Manchester City but seems a natural as the ball-player in the middle of a back three and the decision to move club-mate Kyle Walker inside looks a masterstroke as it allows him to link-up with Tottenham’s Kieran Trippier.

Either fellow Spurs man Danny Rose or Manchester United’s reinvigorated Ashley Young are likely to provide width on the left, while team-mate Eric Dier and Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson appear to be battling it out for a spot in midfield, although they could be used in tandem in tougher games.

In attack England have pace galore. Having top scored in qualifying with five, Tottenham’s Harry Kane has the attributes to shine in Russia and is 17.00 to win the Golden Boot.

Gary Lineker is the only the other Englishman to have won the award, but Kane is sure to be provided with plenty of service. City’s Raheem Sterling and Manchester United duo Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford all have both the speed and skill to outfox defences, while Dele Alli’s relationship with Kane from club level can only help.

Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, who is 9.50 to be his country’s top scorer, also provides pace off the bench, while Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek are the type of unknown quantities who can surprise the opposition.

A kind draw for the Three Lions

The dilemma as ever is whether or not England can put it all together when it matters. The Three Lions open their Group G campaign against the aforementioned Tunisians.

Southgate was part of the side who beat The Eagles of Carthage at France ’98 and will then take his side on to Nizhny Novgorod to face tournament new boys Panama.

These are the type of games that have troubled the Three Lions in the past, but with the pressure off and them employing a more intricate style of football, they may well be able to cut loose.

If all goes to plan, England’s game with Belgium in Kaliningrad on June 28 should settle the group and Southgate’s side can by buoyed by the knowledge they have lost just once to the Red Devils. England are 2.30 to top Group G and the draw has been kind to them.

Group H features Poland, Japan, Senegal and Colombia, all teams on paper that England should be able to beat. It means a maiden quarter-final appearance since 2006 could well be on the cards at 1.80, while more optimistic punters may back them for the last four at 4.00.

Time for England to deliver

The question is, can less pressure signal better results? In theory the answer is yes.

For too long England teams have arrived at major tournaments with the public and press expecting success, something that has led to overblown egos who have failed to adapt when adversity is presented to them. Southgate’s patient nature and unemotional style means he will pick the team he feels is best to win.

The time is now for his players to mimic that attitude and finally start reproducing their club form on the international stage.