As we hit the month of June attention inevitably turns to the flagpole event of 2018 for football. Squads are assembling and pre-tournament friendlies are underway for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and despite controversies over the host nation Russia, fervour is as high as its ever been for the showpiece.
For England fans the enthusiasm probably isn’t as high as in previous years – expectations of winning significantly lower than other recent tournaments – but some exciting players and decent results in friendlies leading up to the tournament mean there’s at least something to look forward to. Of course, in a knockout tournament it’s anyone’s game, and that means there are possibilities for England to upset the odds. It equally means a repeat of the embarrassment of 4 years ago, going out in the group stage, cannot be ruled out either. Here’s a speculative look at how either of these scenarios could play out.
Group Stage scenario 1- England dominate it
England have been drawn in an intriguing group alongside relative unknown quantities in Tunisia and Panama, as well as a hugely talented but unfulfilled Belgium team. On paper the odds would suggest that ourselves and Belgium should be able to comfortably qualify for the knockout stages and with the right approach and preparation this is more than achievable.
England will hope to have qualification sealed before they face up to Belgium in the final group game, and if they’re serious about making an impact on the competition overall they’ll need to put in solid wins against Tunisia and Panama. It’s likely, especially for Panama, that we’ll be up against more defensive approaches. They play against each other on the final group match and both teams will feel that if they can take a point of England or Belgium, a win in that last match could qualify them. Therefore the focus needs to be on how to quickly assert dominance and avoid being suffocated out of the match like we were against Iceland in Euro 2016. An early goal in that game was followed by a performance that demonstrated a team with no plan or leadership and holes were quickly picked apart. Once Iceland had capitalised they organised themselves efficiently to frustrate a slow England team with very little fluidity.
This year England have 50 Premier League goals in the squad just through Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy alone. Add the combined pace and creativity of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli and there’s no reason why we can’t pose significant threat. Of course if Gareth Southgate persists with a wingback formation that only realistically accommodates 3 of those 6 players as opposed to a more flexible attacking formation, we might see our alternative scenario (see later) play out.
But for now, let’s assume we go into the opening game against Tunisia with an attacking 4-4-2 system that allows Kane and Vardy to operate down the middle and Sterling and Lingard to play high up the flanks, with Kyle Walker playing in his preferred right back role that allows him to aggressively push forward, as well as utilising the effective relationship he’s built with Sterling over a title winning season. Playing with a confidence in their goalscoring ability, England secure an impressive win and go on to repeat the feat against Panama having rotated some of their squad options. With qualification secure, the pressure is off and England play out an entertaining final match against Belgium that finalises top place in the group.
Group Stage Scenario 2- England bottle it
Certainly the scenario we fear most is England once again getting cold feet at the tournament and failing to make an impression. Unfortunately this could well happen on the current path with a lot of the common faults we’ve seen at recent tournaments not wholly eradicated (it would seem) by Gareth Southgate.
As mentioned above, the 3-4-1-2/3-4-2-1 system does prevent Southgate from maximising his attacking pool. Of course he wants to incorporate the partnership between Dele Alli and Harry Kane as best as possible, but then one of Jamie Vardy and Raheem Sterling, two of the top English goalscorers of the past season, has to sit out. The ability to attack teams from out side becomes withdrawn, especially if Kyle Walker is being shoehorned as a right sided central defender in a 3 man defence. Throw in 2 more defensively minded midfield players in Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson, and suddenly we’ve thrown just the slightest initiative to our opponents. This isn’t anything against the quality of our players individually (Henderson gets more than his unfair share of criticism for such an industrious and passionate player) but rather the fact that if we’re against opposition who will set out their stalls to frustrate us, filling half the outfield lineup with 3 centre backs and 2 defensive midfielders makes that job just a little easier for them.
Of course, some caution isn’t such a bad thing. We saw in their recent friendly against Portugal that Tunisia certainly carry some threat on the counter attack and could easily nick a goal or two if concentration levels drop. Gareth has openly stated that being able to pass the ball, not defend it, is his preferred quality in centre backs leading to the odd decision to drop Chris Smalling, one of the most consistent defenders in one of our league’s strongest defensive sides. If Kyle Walker continues to be preferred over traditional centre backs, then a big risk is being played as to how he accustoms to the positional senses of the role in time for the biggest tournament going. Should he let his instincts of pushing forward into space take over (and these things do happen) then an opportunity to exploit some space arises.
So worst case scenario. Tunisia deliver a stunning counter attack display to take 3 points in a huge upset. Confidence hit and fan/media support turning increasingly sour, England labour to a dull and uninspiring draw against a resolute and organised Panama. Needing a famous win to salvage their tournament, the individual brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku overwhelms England and they crash out at the earliest opportunity for the second World Cup in a row. Sam Allardyce is reappointed on interim basis.
Return to Scenario 1- the knockout rounds
OK so that was some pretty dour thoughts there and we all want to believe that England can be the victors this year. So let’s return to our original scenario and assume England have topped Group G and are through to the last 16. This means we play against whoever finishes second in Group H- a hard group to call overall. Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal are all battling it out and whilst they all have individual players capable of hurting teams, there’s no overall clear favourite. Let’s assume the group finishes as it would be expected to by the current FIFA World Rankings- therefore Poland have topped the group with Colombia finishing second. England are full of confidence by this stage and quickly identify nullifying the threat of playmaker James Rodriguez as crucial in securing victory. Jordan Henderson, so often a maligned figure in the national team, performs the sort of harrassing midfield role that stopped the imperious Manchester City midfield in its tracks in the Champions League, and Rodriguez can’t cope with it. Bouyed by such drive and aggressiveness, the England attackers play with an extra vigour and directness, culminating in a high tempo and clinical display that blows the South Americans away.
From the quarter finals onwards we’re likely to be playing some high calibre opposition whatever happens. Of course it will be important for Gareth and his coaching team to focus on how to stop the opposition from playing but if there’s any takeaway from looking at out squad, it’s that it has attacking variety that needs to be believed in. Harry Kane is a goal poacher who can get on the end of crosses into the box if we choose to be that way inclined. The pace of Rashford and Vardy give us a genuine counter attacking threat against especially strong teams (let’s say France or Germany). Technical players such as Alli and Sterling can work their way through top defences. The team has looked at east fairly well organised in recent friendlies and with such a choice of options, we have the potential to keep teams guessing and tailor our attack to the type of side we’re up against. Defences aren’t what they used to be- just take a minute to count the genuine defensive stars in any of the South American teams. Sure, we can all grimace at the depth of France, Germany and Spain who’ve been able to leave out a number of excellent players each. But it’s the squads of 23 that are going to be in Russia that count for everything, and even though there are legitimate criticisms that can be made in some areas of ours (how we’d love a central midfielder with a slightly more expansive range of passing) the fact of the matter is we have to play to our strengths, and that those strengths are surprisingly varied.
Gareth has started to hint that he might just have more of a lock on what the fans want to see than he gets credit for, leaving less popular figures such as Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere at home. What’s the betting he now adds some attacking freedom to get us on his side?
How far do you think England will get in the upcoming World Cup? Comment below or tweet us your thoughts at @AllOutFootball_ with the hashtag #AOF!