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I’m fully prepared for disappointment once again as a fan of England football; however, at least this year’s edition of failure might well come with a slight dash of hope beforehand this time.
The 2014 World Cup was one of the worst outings ever for the national team; a single point in a scoreless draw to Costa Rica and losses to Italy and Uruguay. It was bad. Very, very bad. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were old. The strikers couldn’t score. There was no sense of urgency at all to the team’s play. All in all, it was the worst showing for the team since 2000, when they also didn’t make it out of group play at the Euro.
The 2016 Euro was also a disappointment; the squad did advance out of the group stages, but after a 1-1 draw against Russia and a 0-0 draw against lowly Slovakia (not to mention just barely squeaking by an upstart Welsh squad), they were defeated in the Round of 16 by tournament darlings Iceland. While it was fun for much of the rest of the world, back home, football fans fumed quietly about yet another early, underwhelming exit.
At first glance, it appears as though manager Gareth Southgate has learned from some of Roy Hodgson’s mistakes when it came to selecting this year’s roster. Let’s take a look at what’s changed between the 2016 Euro and this year’s World Cup roster.
|Joe Hart (Manchester City)||Jordan Pickford (Everton)|
|Fraser Forster (Southampton)||Jack Butland (Stoke City)|
|Tom Heaton (Burnley)||Nick Pope (Burnley)|
While Man City did have a strong campaign in the Premier League once again this year, it’s interesting to see such a large shake-up here in the position of goalkeeper. Jordan Pickford was assigned the number 1 on his kit from manager Southgate, meaning that so far, he appears to have the inside track on the starter’s job. There’s not a ton of experience here – Pickford has only two international caps at the senior level, while Jack Butland has just seven; third-stringer Nick Pope is uncapped entirely. It’s a big change to leave Joe Hart and his 75 international caps off the roster outright for the first time since 2010. Pickford did have a stellar season at Everton after coming over from Sunderland. However, with the roster as a whole swinging towards youth over experience this time around, there’s plenty of potential here for the keepers to impress.
|Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)||Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)|
|Gary Cahill (Chelsea)||Gary Cahill (Chelsea)|
|Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool)||Phil Jones (Manchester United)|
|Danny Rose (Tottenham)||Harry Maguire (Leicester)|
|Chris Smalling (Manchester United)||Danny Rose (Tottenham)|
|John Stones (Everton)||John Stones (Manchester City)|
|Kyle Walker (Tottenham)||Kieran Trippier (Tottenham)|
|Kyle Walker (Manchester City)|
|Ashley Young (Manchester United)|
Gary Cahill is the veteran of this backfield and is serving as a vice-captain for the tournament. A couple of other surprises include teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is uncapped at the senior level, and Ashley Young, who hadn’t seen international duty in four years but has returned courtesy of a switch to left back that was made by United manager José Mourinho. Walker, Maguire, and Stones are likely to start for this squad, but the real question will see who fills the final slot if Southgate plays with a straight four formation.
|Dele Alli (Tottenham)||Dele Alli (Tottenham)|
|Ross Barkley (Everton)||Fabian Delph (Manchester City)|
|Eric Dier (Tottenham)||Eric Dier (Tottenham)|
|Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)||Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)|
|Adam Lallana (Liverpool)||Jesse Lingard (Manchester United)|
|James Milner (Liverpool)||Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)|
|Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)|
|Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)|
Dele Alli is a dynamic player, and hopefully will show the ability he did for Spurs in the 2016-17 Premier League season. At age 22, he’s still very young and has many years of international duty ahead of him. Other key features will be to see where Eric Dier will slot in – he has played a variety of positions at mid though his strength is at centre mid; Fabian Delph was also a surprise choice but thanks to his strong season with title-winning Man City, that was enough to tip the scales for him. The most inexperienced of this lot is Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who has only two caps for England. It’s notable to see Adam Lallana left off the list this season, though he was included on the reserves list in case something happens to one of the other mids. Jack Wilshere wasn’t even included on the reserves list this time around, another big change from the Roy Hodgson era. Ultimately, the success of the midfield will depend on the youth stepping up, and some good luck to avoid any key injuries.
|Harry Kane (Tottenham)||Harry Kane (Tottenham)|
|Marcus Rashford (Manchester City)||Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)|
|Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)||Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)|
|Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool)||Jamie Vardy (Leicester)|
|Jamie Vardy (Leicester)||Danny Welbeck (Arsenal)|
Harry Kane will serve as captain for this year’s team, and the striker corps is once again strong; Raheem Sterling rebounded from some poor seasons and played very well for Man City up front, helping them to win the Premier League. Marcus Rashford is still just 20 years old, and it’s impressive to see him in his second major international tournament already; despite having an up-and-down season for United this past year, he’ll likely serve a role as an impactful substitute. There’s a lot of chances for Southgate to mix and match formations as he sees fit with this lineup, and flexibility is going to be key for this year’s squad.
England vs. Tunisia: June 18th – The Tunisians are not major players on the international stage. In their four appearances in the final tournament, they have never made it out of the group stage. Most of the roster plays in the top two French leagues, and while the squad did win the 2004 African Cup of Nations, that is their most successful international appearance to date. Hopefully England will be able to capitalize on this.
England vs. Panama: June 24th – It’s the first time in Panama’s history that they’ve qualified for the final tournament; after they beat Honduras through goal differential, and finished a single point clear of the United States in order to qualify, the government declared a national holiday. This is a big deal for Panama that they’re appearing here – but nobody is expecting them to do much of anything. Expect them to park the bus and likely just weather the storm as much as possible.
England vs. Belgium: June 28th – this will be by far the toughest matchup for the Three Lions. The Red Devils, led by Romelu Lukaku, are a deep, experienced squad; besides Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are impact players that England will need to be cautious of when on the pitch. There’s definitely reason to believe their midfield and back end are more capable than England’s, but this is likely to be a very close match.
This team has definitely benefited from a weak group draw overall; while I do believe that they and Belgium are virtual locks to make it out of the group stage, this IS the Three Lions we’re talking about here. Ultimately, Harry Kane is the heartbeat of this team; as he goes, so will the rest of them. Fortunately, he’s played out of his mind this year both for Spurs and at the international level – hopefully this means good things ahead.
While I’m still doubtful about the final results, it is overall very pleasing to see that Gareth Southgate is demonstrating a willingness to take the team in a new direction after the disappointing Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson years. (Sam Allardyce is a myth, like the Samsquantch.). Hopefully a movement towards youth will re-invigorate a squad that has shown nothing but inertia and ennui at the international level this century; and even if it doesn’t show during this tournament, perhaps it’ll pay off once the next Euro or World Cup rolls around.
And failing that, well, at least we can chuckle at the salacious tabloid headlines that will result out of all of it. It’s all I have left at this point.