The English are the Chicago Bears of international soccer. Even though they basically created the sport, and have one of the biggest fan bases as well, they have sat by and watched others pass them as the game changed and evolved, still clinging to what they believed, all the while bleating about their divine right to attention and success. And much like the Bears, they only have a singular championship worth crowing about, which gets more and more faint and irrelevant in the rearview mirror. And as a fan of both, I guess I’m seeing how I got this way and will reference this to all the people close to me going forward to explain whatever fuck-up is soon to arrive.
It really is something that England only has the 1966 World Cup to claim. Even worse, there hasn’t even been another final! There’s been a couple of semis (the last World Cup and 1990, Euro 1996). But this is the country with the biggest league in the world, and the richest, so you’d think they would have mustered more.
Some will tell you the Premier League’s status has held the national team back, as more and more clubs just spend on foreign talent than developing English players. But there’s always an excuse handy for England’s failures. They didn’t have enough talent, the talent didn’t fit together (the Gerrard-Lampard-Rooney years), the manager nearly shit himself in every big game (Sven-Goran Eriksson), the Germans are aliens (1990, 1996, 2010), the Portugese cheat (2004, 2006), the manager is a blithering idiot (Roy Hodgson), and on it goes.
There is an element of truth in all of these of course, and yet none of them get to the big problem, which is that for all the talent England boasted in the past, they just weren’t on the same technical level as their rivals. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard. Wayne Rooney, the others of the last golden generation were all wonderful players, but they were more blood-and-thunder than they were able to pick and dance their way through defenders. Which is how the English really preferred their soccer anyway.
That’s not the case anymore. None of the above excuses will apply to this England squad, other than maybe the manager is an idiot (we’ll get to that). England is awash in talent, at least on the attacking end of the field. To the point that Jadon Sancho, the dude who has piled up 37 goals and 41 assists in the Bundesliga before his 21st birthday is unlikely to make the startling lineup. Or maybe Phil Foden, arguably the most exciting player 20-or-under in the world right now, won’t either. Or Raheem Sterling might not, who was one of Man City’s best players the previous three seasons. Or maybe Jack Grealish, the Premier League’s most fouled player and one of its most dangerous players in the world with the ball at his feet. Dominc Calvert-Lewin, he of the 29 goals the past two seasons in the Premier League, is a definite backup. Before he got hurt, Trent Alexander-Arnold, one of the finest attacking right-backs in the world, was basically given a spot merely to keep fans from complaining. England most certainly didn’t need him and will be fine without him.
And unlike previous generations of talented England teams, this one is technically sound. On the ball, Grealish and Foden are as good as it gets. Harry Kane has become a complete forward, keeping Tottenham from being a complete laughingstock (well, close at least) by not only being its best scorer but its best passer as well. Mason Mount was the creative force for the team that just won the Champions League.
England will also have the advantage of playing every match, save the quarterfinal, at home. No other team will get such a boost, but that only counts if they can make the semifinals, which should be the minimum for this team.
But this is England. They’ll fuck it up They always fuck it up. So how could they this time? Well, you’ll notice that array of talent is in the forward half of the field. The defense is still good, and John Stones was a revelation this year, but not up to that standard. And it may be worse because Harry Maguire, no sure bet himself on the best of days, might not be healthy to start the tournament. Which probably means manager Gareth Southgate, at least at first, will revert to a 3-4-3 formation to make up for Maguire’s absence, which leaves fewer spots for the plethora of weapons he has up front.
In a 4-3-3, Southgate could easily slot Mount, or Foden, or Grealish at the point of the midfield three, or even two of them if he really got a wild hair on his ass. This would allow speedsters like Sterling or Sancho or Rashford to flank Kane and stretch defenses. It would be terrifying for most teams to face. But in a 3-4-3, that No. 10 spot just doesn’t exist. It does allow Kane more space to drop deep and pick out passes through to the wingers or wingbacks, and Reece James and Ben Chilwell/Luke Shaw should have no problems bombing forward. But that might leave Tyrone Mings or Ben White completely isolated, and that’s a problem against the better teams.
The other question is Southgate himself. The job kind of landed on him when Sam Allardyce hilariously face-planted out of the job, but Southgate won everyone over with that run to the semis in Russia. But England got there through a bevy of set-piece goals and some last ditch defending, which won’t work here. And England is capable of more, perhaps for the first time. Quite frankly, this is a team that’s meant to go full heavy metal football, and yet Southgate hasn’t shown he can take his foot off the brake. When games get tight, England should be relying on their attack more than their defense.
Whatever the case, they simply won’t get a better chance at a trophy than this, given the home games. Yeah, you can say so many players are so young and maybe they’ll be even better in two or four years. But this is the chance here now and England are rightly among the two or three favorites. But again, this is England.
It will do England’s nerves no favors that first up on the menu is Croatia, the team that ended their run at the last World Cup. And telling them it’s not really the same Croatia probably won’t help. Yeah, Luka Modrić is still here, and on a given day can still look like the dude who was helping to engineer all those Champions Leagues for Madrid. He’s also 35, and N’Golo Kante just showed how a mobile midfield can pretty much wipe him from any game. Ivan Rakitić isn’t here any more, and the turnover to the next Croatian team hasn’t always been a smooth one. Milan’s Ante Rebić can be a spicy attacker, but that’s just about all Croatia have up front. Mario Mandžukić isn’t here any more to lead the line. That will likely fall to Bruno Petković, who just had a nine-goal season in the Croatian league. Monster, he is not. Dejan Lovren still might start in defense, and he was a calamity-in-waiting when he was young. The midfield could still be fiery with Modrić, Marcelo Brozović, and Matteo Kovačić, but you might find them really feeling like this come their tourney’s end.
Let’s face it, there’s only one game that’s going to matter to Scotland. That’s the clash against England in the second group game at Wembley. The Scots may be able to defend and effort their way to the second round, but this is hardly a dynamic team. They had to switch to a back three just to crowbar two left-backs into the team in Kieran Tierny and Andy Robertson, who are their two best players. They scored one goal in two playoff games against Israel and Serbia and won two penalty shootouts to get here. They scored 16 goals in 10 qualifiers before that, and 10 of those were against San Marino. Do not watch Scotland to be entertained. Stay for the beer though.
The Czech Republic is one of the few international teams that try and press high all the time. They also have trouble scoring, but got here by only giving up six goals in seven games in qualifying after getting utterly thwacked by England 5-0 in the first game. They even held Belgium to a 1-1 draw in World Cup qualifying, but backed that up by losing to Wales. There aren’t a lot of names here, but the defense alone will make things tough on everyone.
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Euro 2021 kicks off Friday, June 11