England and football are almost synonymous. The Premier League and its clubs are the dominant force in the globalization of football consumption and specifically in the growth of the football fan base in the United States. The importance of sport in society and culture is undeniable, and the national team in particular has seen its fair share of support from pop bands like New Order, Oasis and, of course, the famous collaboration between Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds “Three Lions.”
There is enormous pressure and expectations on England. Football is an important part of popular national identity and the national team, fair or not, carries that weight when it comes to major tournaments. With the culture surrounding the team and the talent at their disposal, they are expected to win against the best of the best on the international stage…
But they haven’t won a major tournament since the 1966 World Cup.
Despite this, England have been a team on the verge of greatness for the last two tournaments. In 2018 Gareth Southgate brought to Russia a group that was a mix of established English players and in-form players, new and old. They reached the semifinals.
At Euro 2020 (in 2021) the squad was a different mix, a mix of established Southgate England players and talent from the next generation of English players. Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips made regular appearances throughout the tournament, while Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden took turns appearing. They reached the final, where they lost painfully on penalties to Italy at Wembley.
These were England’s best tournament performances since 1990, but it’s still not good enough for the nation’s high expectations. The manager and players have been criticized for this and hope they still have what it takes to go far.
They certainly still have the talent, as they proved at the start of the group stage with a comfortable 6-2 win over Iran. Their young stars laid on a clinic in the first half, and their depth showed when they finished it in the second. England’s dreams may come true in 2022, but they must strike the right balance between Southgate’s proven veterans and breakthrough players in the 2022 squad.
As usual, there’s a solid mix of talent. How will Southgate use them?
A key factor in a successful England line-up is figuring out which players can drive the game out of danger areas and which players can come off the bench and offer something different in possession, particularly up front. At last year’s EURO it was Grealish and Luke Shaw, two players who thrived with the space in front of them created by England’s deeper formation, able to push forward effectively while opposing defenders were still faltering.
Both can still fulfill that role this time around, but in terms of freshness, the Three Lions have great talent that balances play and drives possession.
That’s where Jude Bellingham comes in, England’s youngster who may get a chance to really make himself known at the World Cup. A rising superstar since he was a 16-year-old for Birmingham City, he has continued to build his game at Borussia Dortmund ever since. He’s been electrifying so far this season, playing effectively on the pitch and even scoring big goals in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. His box-to-box ability could be tremendous if given the chance to come in alongside Declan Rice and it could take England’s midfield a step further in their ability to control and win games.
He showed why on Monday when he scored the opening goal from a Shaw cross and played a crucial role in putting the game in England’s favour. This area of the pitch is key to England’s chances and was an area of no influence last time out.
Rice, Bellingham and Mason Mount started in midfield, giving England good defensive defence, confidence on the ball, a young box-to-box phenomenon and an experienced, forward-thinking creator in fine form.
This setup fits each of Gareth Southgate’s obvious England models, namely: 1. Just don’t back down on what you’re doing and 2. You suck, let’s attack. The latter is the less common strategy given Southgate’s preference for defensive stability, which is why players like Bellingham are huge for the first plan.
It’s a safe plan but the problem is that England need to come into the break with fewer numbers up front. Harry Kane is a veteran of this style of play and has always worked well with Raheem Sterling, but they haven’t always gotten much help. That needs to change. Quality reigns in midfield and forwards like Saka, Grealish and the in-form Marcus Rashford all got on the scoresheet on Monday to show just how much attacking talent the Three Lions have. Southgate have excellent opportunities to turn things around and take the pressure off the defense and the ambition shown in the opening game must continue.
With the balance between veterans and newcomers, England remain poised to compete. They have plenty of talent for the future but this could be their best chance to end all those years of injury and bring football home.