Don’t look now but England is going to win the World Cup. There it’s been said, it’s out there, deal with it. This team feels different than its predecessors. It’s younger, closer-knit, and still has past experience to deal with adversity. Every piece of this puzzle has changed since the 2014 World Cup, so get on board, grab your bucket of vindaloo, it’s going to happen.
Let’s start with Manager Gareth Southgate. Merely 23 years younger than the previous manager Roy Hodgson (I’m not counting Big Sam’s brief stint). Southgate managed many of these same players in the U-21 squad whom he was in charge of from 2013 until he took over the senior team in 2016. At 47, he is one of the youngest managers to ever lead the national team.
Southgate’s age is important because his team is incredibly young. The average age is 26.5 years old. These players will respond better to a younger ex-footballer than a Roy Hodgson-type (70) type relic of another era. Just like Klopp at Liverpool (50), Pochettino at Spurs (47), and Guardiola at City (47) he is closer to “Dad” age than he is “Granddad” age. Those three managers finished fourth, third, and first respectively in the EPL last season.
Under Hodgson, the team looked lifeless, with no Plan B, and really I’m still trying to understand what his plan A was. Roy’s tactical and personnel changes always seemed to come too late. Towards the end of his tenure, it looked like he would rather take a nap than make an impactful substitution. At the very least, he seemed to bore the players he was trying to motivate. Southgate AT THE VERY LEAST is something new. A breath of fresh air, injecting a new voice in the room, though one whom is still familiar to the players in the squad.
The Tip of the Spear
Speaking of the Squad, this is where my optimism rides incredibly high. Starting with their captain. two-time golden boot winning, four season wonder, the hero of Chingford, Harry Kane. Now Captain of the Three Lions. Kane, since getting the call to the first team has 13 goals in 24 appearances. Kicking off his first-team debut with a goal just 80 seconds in. He leads a potent strike force that also includes; Jamie Vardy who has 57 goals in his last three Premier League seasons, as well as Marcus Rashford and Danny Welbeck. This trio is a superb option for Southgate. Vardy, Rashford, and Welbeck can come in and make an impact off the bench either replacing Kane or play alongside him up top.
Kane plays as a lone striker up top for Tottenham, is a dynamic forward who can drop deeper into the mid-field to obtain possession, can play as an outlet up front, and unlike many Englishmen before him even score from the spot when the pressure is on. He is a humble man with great confidence. He took a serpentine route to stardom but has worked his boots off to get where he is today. Kane takes nothing for granted, and one thing English fans can count on is that he will leave it all on the field. His finishing is clinical. Kane hitting the target is as sure a thing as a rainy day in England.
The rest of the attacking options playing just behind Kane are just as potent. If Kane is the tip of the spear, then a combination of current English media punching bag (more on that in a second) Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are the players who make up the rest of that spearhead. That spearhead will pierce through the back line of even the most resolute defenses. Dele and Kane formed a lethal combination at Tottenham over the last few years, being able to time through balls with an ease of telepathic twins.
Loftus-Cheek all of 22 years old, is an interesting option for Southgate. He won Man of the Match against Germany in November spraying passes all over the pitch. A dynamic and physical mid-fielder, the ceiling for this young man is sky high. Loftus-Cheek adds a dynamic pivot and he may sneak his way into the starting 11.
The real story here though is Sterling. Sterling has absolutely flourished under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage. Playing a slightly more forward and central role he was unstoppable this year banging in 24 goals and 12 assists as he helped lead Manchester City to an easy Premier League title. He is an exciting speedster that has learned to finish and create. He lifts the pressure off Kane slightly now with his increased production in front of goal. This is as potent a front four as England has been able to call on for some time.
The Spine of this squad is also strong with Jordan Henderson (Liverpool’s captain), Eric Dier, and Fabian Delph. These three men bring grit, experience, and versatility to the table.
Henderson is the elder statesmen of the team (38 caps, only 27 years old) and brings that much-needed experience the midfield. Henderson is able to calm a game down, to hold possession and distribute the ball. As an added bonus, he is always likely to pop up and support the attacking charge. He could have easily captained this side, and will be the one to don the armband should Kane be substituted off.
Dier provides a different type of versatility, rather than being someone to really drive into the attacking third like Henderson, Dier can play and cover at center back, as well as getting stuck into a challenge if the situation should call for it. Dier is a tank, who makes up for his average distribution skills with heart and passion. He, like Kane, will leave every ounce of it on the field. Dier was raised in Portugal but is very much English. While he may not get the nod to start, can come in and lock up any thoughts an opposing team has of mounting a comeback
Delph compliments both Henderson and Dier very well. Delph has found new life under Pep Guardiola prior to the World Cup. Once an attacking midfielder, he was tasked with playing left back when City ran into injury problems. Just as Sterling did, Delph also flourished in his new role. He will bring that experience to the national team as well as being able to provide excellent cover for the overlap on the left is so needed. To lift the trophy you need a strong spine to support you, and England has that.
Speaking of left backs, Southgate has a wealth of options, and it will be interesting to see which he goes with. Does he go with Danny Rose? A player who has in the past provided speed and could perfectly play the overlap with Delph. Does Southgate go with old man Ashley Young? A man who has not been part of the national team for four years. Thanks to a good campaign at United this season, Young has been recalled and is a good addition to the squad. Or perhaps Harry Maguire will add to his four caps? This all largely depends on what formation Southgate goes with. A back three may see Maguire or veteran Gary Cahill get the pick over Young, for example.
The rest of the defense again will mostly depend on the formation. I’d go with a back three. John Stones playing centrally, Kyle Walker on the right, and Kieran Trippier set-up as a right wing-back. Stone and Walker know each other from their season together at City. Trippier and Walker provide a lip-licking attacking sting on the right side. A combination of those two on the right will be a deadly constant attacking threat and provide endless crossing chances to Kane and Co.
Goalkeepers, The biggest story out of this part of the team is that Joe Hart was not invited and left out of the 23-man squad in favor of Nick Pope, Jordan Pickford, and Jack Butland. Pope will be relegated to third string, while both Pickford and Butland saw a TON of shots this Premier League season. Pickford looks to get the nod as the starter. He had a wonderful season for Everton, even though they were crap. This is his first senior tournament, so long as he doesn’t go all Rob Green, he should be fine.
The English media has already found their scapegoat in Sterling. The press has been attacking him for years. Labeling him something different every week. Calling him greedy for wanting a raise while at Liverpool after winning PFA Young Player of the Year. Then oddly given him stick for “flaunting his money” by buying his mother a house. Then hypocritically chastized him for buying inexpensive clothes at Primark. They’ve even insulted him for proposing to his longtime girlfriend. Quick reminder Sterling is STILL only 23.
Just recently the media called for his dismissal from the national team for a tattoo he got on his leg of an M16. All of this manufactured outrage without even asking the player why. The reason, it seems, is that its an unfinished tattoo of a tribute to his father. Sterling’s father was shot and killed when Raheem was only two years old. Thankfully the FA, Southgate, and his teammates have backed Sterling. He has been dealing with this media pressure since his time at Liverpool. If anyone can handle media scrutiny, it is Sterling. And the same goes for Dele, Kane and the rest of the attacking spear. Hard, sharp and ready to cause some pain.
Unbridled Optimism Redux
As I said at the top of this piece (and thanks for sticking around) this English team just feels different to me. They are a team of likable guys. Gone are the John Terry’s and Steven Gerrard’s, in are the Kane’s and Sterling’s. Young, energetic, and already experienced.
No one expects England to go very far. Their current odds sit around 20/1. They are not even favored to win their group. Belgium, the not-so-hipster, hipsters pick is favored 11/1 to win it all, and are expected to win the group. This England team is different, they have that youthful confidence, that even the English media hasn’t beaten out of them yet.
Think about what Iceland did at Euro 2016. And if Costa Rica can do what they did in the 2014 World Cup, surely this England team can do that and more. They have more elite talent than Costa Rica, more experience than Iceland. They don’t have to go through Italy, Netherlands, or the US. Call me insane but no one thought Leicester City would win the Premier League a few years ago, or that the Vegas Golden Knights would have made it to the Stanley Cup finals this year. Things happen, teams come together just right, at the right time and place to make magical runs. This is going to be one of them, it’s coming home.