‘Thirty years of hurt’ has now become fifty-six. Bobby Moore walking up the steps of Wembley, shaking the hand of Her Majesty all before holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft in front of over 96,000 spectators – an iconic moment etched into not just the fabric of English football but the fabric of modern post-war England itself.
🏴 Happy #StGeorgesDay!
— The Sportsman (@TheSportsman) April 23, 2020
This is yet to be replicated. The Three Lions came close last summer when they reached the final of the European Championships, but three missed penalties against the Italians was the difference between potential national jubilation and a return to the status quo – England not winning.
However, with a new international tournament comes another opportunity to right the many failures and near-misses that have come before. The FIFA World Cup kicks off, controversially, in Qatar on Sunday and manager Gareth Southgate looks to take his side once step further than the last World Cup.
Who’s in the squad?
When Southgate announced the World Cup squad, there were very few surprises. The mainstays from last summer’s Euros all remain, minus a few cursed with injuries.
Harry Kane, as always, will be England’s main attacking threat. He will be the first name on the team sheet and with 12 goals in the Premier League for Tottenham Hotspur so far this season, the captain will look to bring this goalscoring to Qatar.
The relatively out-of-form Raheem Sterling will look to leave his tough start at Chelsea behind him this winter in hopes of emulating his scintillating form at the Euros. While he has struggled in front of goal this season, Southgate will rely on his wealth of international experience when it matters.
— UEFA EURO 2024 (@EURO2024) June 13, 2021
The surprise inclusion in the squad list was the often-snubbed James Maddison. The Leicester City midfielder has only one England cap to boast so far, but his world-class form so far in the Premier League has caught Southgate’s eye. He is very different to the other midfield options in the squad also, so he could very easily come on and have an impact and change the dimension of any given game.
The rest of the midfield will not shock many. The ever-reliable Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips look to be England’s defensive-midfield options who can allow Jude Bellingham the freedom he needs to express himself and drive the attack forward as he does for Borussia Dortmund every week.
One of England’s biggest weaknesses is the absence of a reliable centre back partnership. This has often forced Southgate to play three-at-the-back to mask any defensive weaknesses. While a three-man defence can often provide stability, it can often bore fans as it can hinder attacks.
Nevertheless, Manchester United’s Harry Maguire will likely starts alongside Manchester City’s John Stones and Kyle Walker. Rotation will be a key factor in this tournament, especially with Southgate being able to utilise five substitutions per game, so don’t be shocked to see the likes of Arsenal’s Ben White and Newcastle’s Kieran Trippier make appearances throughout the tournament.
In between the sticks it looks again to be Everton’s Jordan Pickford who has been England’s first-choice goalkeeper for a number of years now and always looks his best in the red or white of his country.
What does England’s group look like?
England will play Iran, the USA and Wales in Group B and have been tipped the favourites to top the group.
Their first opponents will be Iran on Monday the 21st. The middle eastern nation have one of the strongest squads in their history with key attacking players including Feyenoord’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Porto’s Mehdi Taremi who will look to hurt England on the counterattack. Iran often deploy a five-man midfield in front of a four-man defence – this will frustrate England who often struggle to break down teams set up this way, so Iran could prove a bigger challenge that many give them credit for.
Four days later, England will look to damage the ‘special relationship’ with a win against the USA. Similar to Iran, the Americans are in the midst of a golden generation with a very young, but talented group of players. The key attacking talent of Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and pacey fullback Sergino Dest provide the quality, but there have been question marks raised about manager Gregg Berhalter who’s tactics and team selections are often criticised by USA fans. England will look to use their gulf in quality to better their transatlantic opponents.
Wales have not appeared at a World Cup since 1958. They will undoubtedly love to cause an upset by beating England and perhaps recreate the magic of the 2016 Euros where they fought their way to the semi-finals. Their key man, of course, LAFC’s Gareth Bale has been Wales’ talisman for well over a decade and will use his quality footwork and goal-scoring threat to ignite Wales’ World Cup hopes. Fulham’s Daniel James will look to use his explosive pace against England, but the likes of Kyle Walker should be able to tame the Welshman.
Topping the group is expected of England. But, despite having none of the world’s strongest sides to face, their group is by no means easy. All these sides have a point to prove, and they would love to prove it against England who are no strangers to international disappointment.
How far can they go?
South American giants Brazil and Argentina are the favourites to add another star onto their shirts, and if England are to win the whole thing they will most likely have to beat one of these. England are also very likely to face another of the tournament’s favourites: France. Should both sides win their groups and their Round of 16 ties, they would face in the quarter finals.
The road ahead for England looks challenging, but it is challenging for every team. The team have blessings in their squad depth, quality and ability to play multiple formations.
But they also have experience. Almost all of these players know the pain of last summer’s Euros final loss and many of those same players know the pain of the World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia in 2018. The team have been here before, and now with an even more talented pool of players at their disposal, England have as good a chance as they’ve ever had to go all the way, again.