World Cup Hunters: England

The England National team has been one of the most interesting teams to watch over the last four years. Manager Gareth Southgate will have plenty of selection headaches in a potentially all-time high in English talent, primarily playing in the Premier League. However, nearly every selection that Southgate makes is scrutinized even more so than any other international coach. 

In the 2018 World Cup, England made a run to the semi-finals, with captain Harry Kane winning the Golden Boot with six goals. A magical Kieran Trippier free kick put them up 1-0 and on their way to the final. However, they were beaten 2-1 in extra time by eventual runners-up Croatia and 2018 Ballon D’or winner Luka Modric. Being so close to the final massively pained England, but their future seemed bright as they looked to the European Championships. 

Three years later, Southgate’s men were seen as one of the favorites to take home the Euro 2020 trophy (it was postponed due to COVID-19, but still titled Euro 2020). Despite criticism of Southgate’s defensive style of play, often using five defenders and benching lots of attacking talent, England made a run to the final. They beat the likes of Germany, Ukraine and Denmark in the process. However, they lost to Italy in a heartbreaking penalty shootout, in which then 19-year old Bukayo Saka missed the crucial penalty and was distraught. 

Unfortunately, there would be racial abuse directed towards Saka, alongside Manchester United stars Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, who also missed in the shootout. Southgate, who himself missed a crucial penalty that had England knocked out of Euro 1996, knew criticism would go his way despite getting as close to the trophy as he could have. He said after the final that he wasn’t sure if he would take the team to Qatar, arguing that “I don’t want to outstay my welcome.” 

However, Southgate stayed and frankly, England has been quite poor over the past year or so. They’ve been relegated to League B in the UEFA Nations League and Southgate has faced scrutiny for not playing quality players like Manchester City’s Jack Grealish and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold

England goes into the World Cup with a relatively simple group, facing Iran, The United States and Wales. While players like Christian Pulisic and Gareth Bale will try to offset England’s hopes, they enter Group B as favorites. However, the real issue for England is their performance against the other heavyweights of the tournament. Besides a win against Germany in Euro 2020, Southgate’s squad has arguably never beaten a team that had their level of talent or higher. It is still unclear if England’s pragmatism is the right style of play to implement when England eventually come up against a juggernaut like Brazil or France. 

On top of that, England also has a number of injuries that could hinder their squad. Right back Kyle Walker, who has been a staple in Southgate’s starting team, is unlikely to make it back in time. Right back Reece James, who was having a stellar start to the season, will also not be involved, after picking up a knee problem while playing for Chelsea. Without James and Walker, Southgate is left without his top two options for the position. He will be under even more pressure to give playing time to Alexander-Arnold, who’s been seemingly out of favor in the England set up despite a number of world-class years for Liverpool. However, what makes this more complicated is that Alexander-Arnold has uncharacteristically had a poor start to his Liverpool campaign with his defensive frailty being questioned. This makes it even more unlikely that he will start even in the absence of James and Walker. 

I also question some of the choices Southgate will make in his frontline. During the Euros, Southgate heavily relied on Kane as well as the Chelsea duo of Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling. However, Sterling has had a particularly poor season, and there’s pressure on Southgate to start Saka over him, or even to play Manchester City star Phil Foden

Overall, England’s World Cup campaign is certainly one to watch, and could possibly be one of the most memorable of the tournament. Fans wait to see whether Southgate can manage the selection headaches on top of the increasing pressure on his role as England coach. Can England finally banish their history of international tournament heartbreak? Can Harry Kane finally win a trophy to show for all the goals he’s provided on both club and country level? Can England finally taste international success for the first time since 1966? It remains to be seen.