Thursday, September 28

The Three Lions will be hungry for success in Qatar this winter despite a troubling few matches recently, including an underwhelming six games in the UEFA Nations League including two disastrous losses against a well-organised if technically-limited Hungary, 0-1 and 4-0 respectively. Some English fans were calling for manager Gareth Southgate to be sacked after a couple of his tactical decisions didn’t quite pay off.

In the second loss against Hungary, in a child-only Molineux atmosphere, Southgate fielded a side with a relatively low amount of international experience, with the likes of Aaron Ramsdale, Marc Guéhi and Conor Gallagher and Jarrod Bowen coming into the side. One criticism of England during Southgate’s tenure has been a lack of tempo or intensity, and that has been more prominent than ever this year. England looked flat, and a controversial second yellow card from Manchester City centre half John Stones compounded England’s misery as Hungary calved through England three times in 20 minutes to win 4-0.

In terms of tournament football, Southgate has clearly answered his critics with results, with two of England’s best performances at major tournaments, and England best performance at a Men’s EUROs. Throughout EURO 2020, Southgate used a pragmatic style of football which relied on dynamic wing backs to provide width and energy in midfield from Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice to regain and retain possession. It is often said that Southgate’s England play ‘Tournament Football’ with a relatively pragmatic, direct style of play which relied on Kane’s hold-up play and Sterling, Foden, Saka and Grealish at times to progress play in wide areas and most of England’s big chances came from either cutbacks, crosses or set pieces. Many teams over the years have had success at tournaments by making the most of set pieces, and England were no different, scoring three goals from set pieces out of the 11 total from the tournament, which is an impressive 27.27%. 

With the World Cup just months away, England may have to revert to the way they have played so often under Southgate. The former Middlesborough man is said to play this way as it gives England control of the game and allows them to be stable, with very low risk. The way Southgate often manages a game is to try and get a goal or two ahead and then choke the game by playing with a much lower tempo in order to keep possession and give the opposition as few chances as possible and so they can dictate the tempo of the game.

On the topic of the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, one bookmaker makes England third favourite for the tournament at 6/1 at the time of writing, just behind Brazil and France. Many in England are hopeful ahead of the tournament as, under Southgate, England have peaked at tournaments. This time, their leadup to the tournament has certainly been less than ideal so far. Despite England’s obvious quality, they simply haven’t managed to pick up results as of late, with Southgate experimenting tactically with a different take on their four-at-the-back system which England haven’t managed to adapt to as quickly as they were hoping. I personally see England defaulting with a five-at-the-back system for most games, but if they are playing against an opponent of lesser quality, the four-man defence may be utilised, with it being more effective in games against low blocks with one or two more attacking players to try and break down the opponent.

England will be dreaming of a World Cup win, but a semi-final is probably par for the course. England face a relatively simple group in comparison to what they could’ve faced, based on FIFA rankings, and if they get through the group in first place, they likely face a game against Senegal, Ecuador or hosts Qatar, which again, based on FIFA rankings is a favorable tie. After that, we really are getting into hypotheticals, so I will spare you the permutations! England men’s side will be dreaming of matching their women’s counterparts, and finally winning a major trophy.

Five Ones-to-Watch

Raheem Sterling famously grew up ‘in the shadow of the Wembley arch’, in the London borough of Brent, and has now become quite possibly the Three Lions’ best player. Directness, progression and goal threat are all key attributes for wingers in Southgate’s system, and Chelsea’s new star fits the mould to a tee. One point of interest is that Sterling’s move to Chelsea could mean he is playing in a very similar role for both club and country, which will make him even more familiar with the role, and could lead to a terrifying prospect in Qatar.

A man who seems perfect for the right wing back role for England is Trent Alexander-Arnold. His spot is the line-up is a lot less concrete than Sterling’s, with competition from Chelsea’s Reece James, and Newcastle’s star man Kieran Trippier sometimes preferred. On paper, a role with little defensive responsibility would suit Trent perfectly, but thus far he hasn’t been as good for England as he has for Liverpool. This tournament could be big for him though, and if he can gel with the team and learn the role, his crossing and overlapping would be pivotal for England. A creative wing back who regularly assists, there is potential for greatness this winter.

One of the most conflicting players in the squad is Jordan Pickford. England’s current number one, he has never truly let England down, but with Everton there are some obvious errors that seem to occur, with the polarising ‘keeper making 13 errors leading to goals since 2017, according to planetfootball.com. However, Pickford seems much more stable in an England shirt and has been relatively reliable since his debut in 2017 and has impressed for the Three Lions. Pickford will be looking to retain his number one shirt despite many suggesting Aaron Ramsdale or even Dean Henderson may mount a challenge for it.

Jude Bellingham is yet to really find his spot in the England side, despite his obvious talents. Phillips and Rice were great as a midfield pair at EURO 2020, with Jordan Henderson being a great deputy. EURO 2020 was too soon for Jude, but 18 months on, he is a different player. His 2021/22 season with BVB was strong, and I am sure that he is Southgate’s mind ahead of the tournament and may even be pushing for a starting spot. I do, however, feel that he will be a starter one day, if not this year, and it is only a matter of time for the Birmingham academy graduate.

Fikayo Tomori is certainly someone who some fans believe should be one of England’s three starting center halves. The AC Milan star won the Scudetto with the  Rossoneri and was one of the best players in the country during the campaign. Southgate, however, hasn’t given him much of an opportunity to impress for the Three Lions, much to the dismay of those who rate him so highly. Tomori would slot in as a wide centre back, with his aggressive game being well suited to the role, with him having high numbers of tackles and pressures per 90 minutes.

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