Don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of USMNT stuff, starting tonight with the roster announcement. It’s all we’ll do. Well, all I will do. I’m collecting Hacksaw Jim Duggan gifs, let me tell you. This is a space for all the others.
So, to England. The Big Bad of Group B. One of the favorites for the whole tournament, a label they wear with all the joy of Sisyphus. The English are never happy. When they’re not talked about, they bitch and moan about not being the center of attention. When they are the center of attention, they bemoan the assured failure to come. For all their “It’s coming home!” bluster, it’s all a cover. They don’t just fear the drop, they know it and expect it. They basically want it. They wouldn’t know what to do if they won. Exhibit A: The Lionesses not getting a full parade for their Euro 2022 triumph. They caught the whole country cold by actually winning, and beating the Germans to do it.
Here’s another thing about this World Cup. Someone dumb is going to win it, likely. The run-up is too short and too weird, no one’s going to have a full roster, and there won’t be time or availability to put together a comprehensive tactical plan. Which means any team that can get to something effective quickly, or has some special chemistry creating something ineffable, will probably win it. Which means, most likely, a team that can be defensive as all shit and never give up a goal and just find ways to nick one for themselves once a match very well might win the whole thing. Think Greece in 2004 or Portugal in 2016 in the Euros. It’s what we might be looking at in Qatar.
So yes, England manager Gareth Southgate does have an array of attacking talent that is the envy of everyone, save a few nations. Yes, in a vacuum, one should be able to find a way to combine Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, and Jude Bellingham into a terrifying force that rains fire upon anyone unfortunate enough to be scheduled to get in their way. Throw Luke Shaw (now that Ben Chilwell is out) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (now that Reece James is out) bombing up and down the flanks and whipping in crosses and through-balls and who cares if they might give up a goal or two? They should score 10!
Yes, had Southgate been just a little braver in July of 2021, England probably take home their first major trophy since Revolver came out. They took the lead against Italy. They had the Italians on the backfoot with their lightning counters. Italy couldn’t find Harry Kane when he dropped deep and was dishing out dimes for the first half hour. And then England retreated. And retreated. And retreated. Italy pulled their midfield back to give Jorginho and Verratti more space with the ball and they started orchestrating. England rarely saw the ball again. Had Southgate had that step-on-throat gene, England maybe get a second and it’s all over. Instead, he backed up and backed up.
Here’s the thing though. England never conceded a goal from open play. Denmark scored off a free kick. Italy off a corner. At this tournament, that method might be even more important. England can absolutely be that dumb team that wins it. The team that lifts the trophy and you can’t remember enjoying any of the games they played. Fuck, most of the world thinks England is dumb anyway, in whatever form.
The question may be “can England be that tight defensively again?” Their last “competitive” game saw them give up three to Germany at home, though neither team had anything to play for. They only kept one clean sheet throughout the six matches of the Nations League. Harry Maguire might still get on this fucking team, and if he doesn’t they’ll be counting on Eric Dier. That’s showing up to a gunfight with the kevlar vest on your head.
Still, Southgate will only have a week. It’ll be far easier to try and construct a defense than attack. He still has Declan Rice, one of the better shields for a defense from midfield that you can find (though he can do more). He has Bellingham, maybe the most exciting young midfielder in the game as well, who can do everything a midfielder can (though he can do more than shield a defense too). Seeing as how Southgate has never constructed a passionate attacking team, nor has he ever really tried, which way do you think he’s gonna go?
As for the rest of the group, we’ll lean into the USMNT heavy on its own. They could be anything, you know that. Wales and Iran are kind of similar in that we know exactly what they’ll be. Neither is going to be terribly attacking. This whole group might produce seven or eight goals. They’ll both sit back and then try to hit their one forward, be it Gareth Bale or Mehdi Taremi, respectively, with a sucker punch. They’ll be deep, and it won’t be a whole lot of fun. But these are teams with cohesive plans, ones they’ve enacted for years now. They can fall into it at a moment’s notice. For both England and the U.S., teams that are caught in between what they should be, that could be a real problem given the brevity of preparation and the tournament itself.
The lesson, as always, is it’s important to know yourself.
Manager most likely to get red-carded: Has to be Iran’s Carlos Quieroz, as he just got sent off at last year’s AFCON. Should only take one penalty or VAR decision to break that Portuguese cool.
Easy narrative: If Maguire makes the England squad, he will almost certainly score in their first game against Iran.