For years now, there hasn’t been much to do but laugh at England’s performances on the world stage. The so-called Golden Generation won nothing, and the 2014 World Cup team didn’t even make it out of their group. England did manage to make it to the Round of 16 in the 2016 Euros, but ended up getting knocked out of the tournament by tiny Iceland. That cost manager Roy Hodgson his job, and he has since moved on to bottom-dwelling Premier League side Crystal Palace. Hodgson was replaced by Sam Allardyce, but he only lasted one game before being fired for getting caught being shady on camera. (As someone who just suffered through every single game of Allardyce’s half-season stint at Everton, I can’t believe he was ever put in charge of a national team.) With Allardyce gone, the team was put into the hands of Gareth Southgate, who began his tenure by assembling a roster full of broke-dick players like Jake Livermore, Jermaine Defoe, and Luke Shaw.
But here we are now, on the eve of the World Cup, and England look ... pretty good? Southgate, who was only ever supposed to be an interim manager, managed to make the job permanent and is taking a young, physical squad to Russia with him, and he seems committed to having his team play an aggressive, attacking style of soccer. England have the misfortune of sharing their group with Belgium, a team full of great players, but it shouldn’t be too hard to best Panama and Tunisia and advance out of the group stage along with the Red Devils.
Perhaps Southgate has his betters to thank for this. The Premier League currently boasts three of the best managerial minds in world soccer in Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. All three of those guys could’ve raised their hand at any point this summer for the recently vacant Real Madrid job, or any other job at any other soccer superpower, and been granted their wish. The fact that these three have spent the last few years duking it out in the same league is somewhat incredible, and their fight has done a lot to raise the quality of English soccer.
Southgate has spent the last two years flying around England scouting players, and in that time he’s seen Tottenham, City, and Liverpool play some of the fiercest, most inventive soccer that the Premier League has ever seen. It’s no coincidence then that he’s put four City players, five Tottenham players, and two Liverpool players in his squad. (He almost certainly would have taken a third Pool Boy with him if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were healthy). These are players who know how to press, how to play from the back, and how to break down defenses with relentless running and passing. England may not have as much raw talent as it has in World Cups past, but this should at the very least be a fun team to watch.
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Jack Butland (Stoke City), Nick Pope (Burnley)
Defenders: Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Danny Rose (Tottenham), John Stones (Manchester City), Harry Maguire (Leicester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Manchester United), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Midfielders: Eric Dier (Tottenham), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Dele Alli (Tottenham), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
If not for Mohammed Salah turning in one of the best individual seasons in Premier League history, the soccer world would have spent much more time gushing about Tottenham striker Harry Kane. At just 24 years old he’s already established himself as the best striker in England. He scored 21 goals in his first season as Tottenham’s primary striker, followed that campaign up with a 29-goal season, and netted 30 this past season.
He gets all these goals while doing everything a world-class striker is supposed to do. He can shoot accurately from anywhere and with either foot; he always knows exactly where to be and how to position himself; he provides a huge target in the box; he holds the ball up and starts link-up attacks; he runs behind the defense; he bullies defenders in one-on-one situations; he drops deep when needed and even helps his defenders from time to time.
All of that is enough to make Kane the most important player on the team, but so is the fact that England’s pool of strikers isn’t very deep. Marcus Rashford is a talented youngster, but he’s only 20 years old and hasn’t yet put together a full, productive season. Jamie Vardy is a supernatural sprinter and a ruthless finisher, but doesn’t have the frame or strength to play with his back to the defense. And Danny Welbeck is ... well he’s Danny Welbeck. If England are going to do anything in this tournament, it will because Kane plays every game and scores a lot of goals.
Of course, Kane can’t carry the entire offensive burden for his country, and if he’s going to get any help in this tournament, it’s likely to come from Sterling.
Sterling scored 18 goals and made 11 assists in the Premier League this season while helping Manchester City romp through the most dominant campaign in league history. This was the season Sterling finally started to become the player he was always meant to be, and he was one of the driving engines behind City’s unstoppable attack.
Sterling should be the furthest attacker up the pitch next to or just behind Kane, and he is perfectly suited to orbit around the big man and wreak havoc. Sterling is an impossibly talented dribbler who can accelerate straight through defensive lines and is comfortable cutting in on either foot. This makes him dangerous no matter where he’s positioned on the pitch, and so he should have the freedom to play all over the place while supporting Kane.
There is one big problem with Sterling, though: he often exhibits a seemingly pathological inability to put the ball in the net. It’s something of a wonder that he managed to score 18 goals this season while also occasionally doing this:
Given England’s recent disappointing showings in international tournaments and all the psychic weight that bears down on every English World Cup squad, it’s not hard to imagine Sterling uncorking a howler and forever joining the likes of Robert Green as a World Cup goat. This moment from a recent friendly against Nigeria was not exactly encouraging:
Oof. Here’s hoping Sterling bangs a few into the net early on and makes it out of Russia in one piece.
Jordan Pickford is a good young keeper with good distribution skills, but I’m really only mentioning him here so that I can introduce you to Jordan Thiccford:
Gareth Southgate’s biggest innovation has been to install a 3-5-2 system that is supposed to lead to plenty of passing and pressing. A three-at-the-back formation is often only as good as its wingbacks, and luckily for Southgate he has a good collection of fullbacks who should be fit to play the role in Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Fabian Delph. Even old-ass Ashley Young, who recently converted from winger to fullback in an effort to resuscitate his career, had a decent season in his new role at Manchester United. It will fall on these players to push high and wide up the pitch and keep the ball cycling into dangerous areas.
One of the key components in Southgate’s formation will be Kyle Walker, probably the most talented fullback on the team, who instead of playing wingback will be asked to play the right-sided center back role. Walker, a Manchester City star, has demonic speed and specializes in marauding up the wing and causing all sorts of trouble for opposing back lines. And so it feels a little misguided for Southgate to stick a player with Walker’s skills in a position where he will have fewer opportunities to get forward.
But you can see the logic of what Southgate is trying to accomplish. Walker is the best defender on the team, and the plan seems to be to entrust him to defend the entire right side of the pitch essentially by himself. It takes a ridiculous amount of speed, strength, and savvy to pull that off, but Walker has loads of all three. If he can successfully lock down an entire flank on his own, then it will allow the wingback in front of him, probably Kieran Trippier, to stay high up the pitch and keep pressure on the opponent rather than having to track back on defense.
Still, it’s a risk, and you can imagine the grumbling that will occur if England drop a game in which Walker spends all 90 minutes banging away with forwards in his own box while Delph or Young are scuffing crosses on the other end of the pitch.
All times Eastern
June 18, 2 p.m.: Tunisia vs. England at Volgograd Arena
June 24, 8 a.m.: England vs. Panama at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
June 28, 2 p.m.: England vs. Belgium at Kaliningrad Stadium