The FIFA World Cup group stages have often been the unexpected hurdle for England teams in the past. In 2014, the Three Lions tumbled to bottom of their group with just one measly point earned from a 0-0 against Costa Rica. In 2010 they scraped through with just 5 points, the bulk of these earned in a 1-0-win against Slovenia courtesy of Jermaine Defoe – not exactly a classic.
But in 2022, there was little doubt that England would qualify for the knockout stages. Nine goals in all and two clean sheets set Gareth Southgate’s side up as a true threat to the tournament’s other heavyweights as they take on African Champions Senegal in their first knockout clash.
With two convincing wins and one humbling reality check sandwiched in between, England look set to go deep into this tournament.
How have England played?
One of the biggest concerns for England coming into the tournament was the defence. Scepticism of Southgate’s preference for three-at-the-back often dominated pub-chat. However, England have set up with a four-man defence in all of the group stage matches and they have reaped the rewards of a more attack-minded structure.
The defence has been strong with the side conceding just twice, both coming against Iran with the second being a soft penalty decision in favour of the losers. England’s centre backs have confidently held possession and progressed the ball up the pitch to initiate attacks and defended set-pieces with the ease you would expect from players of this experience and quality.
In attack, England have flourished. Marcus Rashford’s three goals and Bukayo Saka’s two have contributed to the Three Lions being the joint-top scorers in the tournament so far with nine overall goals.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) November 29, 2022
Rashford has looked particularly sharp in the box and has shown his potential to be a truly important impact substitute with his 49-second goal against Iran. But he has also staked a big claim to be a starter after his brace against Wales which may perhaps bump him up in Southgate’s attacking pecking order.
Harry Kane meanwhile has not been amongst the goals, but his role is not just to score goals. His link-up play and passing ability has unlocked England’s attack and shown why he would no-doubt be the first name in the team sheet.
The Tottenham Hotspur striker is as much a playmaker as he is a striker these days and his creative output is as important as any goals he scores. That being said, a few goals for the captain would show England to be one of the tournaments biggest attacking threats.
The side play together exceptionally as a team, but some of the lions are leading the pride in this tournament and playing a particularly big part in England’s success.
Who have been the key players?
While a shock to many, Harry Maguire has been England’s stand-out defender.
Daily Express sports reporter Sam Smith praised Maguire’s influence across the group stage. He said: “There were plenty of fans who wouldn’t have even taken him to Qatar due to his club form, but he’s proved those critics wrong.
“He was outstanding against the USA and has been key to the way England play in possession. I’m not sure Southgate has anyone else who dictates possession from deep as well as Maguire does.”
Maguire has featured in just four Premier League matches so far this season but has been a mainstay for England since the 2018 World Cup. His defensive solidity in this tournament so far has been unquestionable, especially against a threatening United States who were England’s biggest challenge in the group.
Smith also notes the influence of the attacking trio of Rashford, Saka and Phil Foden who have all contributed to England’s stylish attack. He said: “[They] have contributed important goals. It will be interesting to see who starts in attack against Senegal.
Rashford Goal from the stands 🤩 pic.twitter.com/Axuvg0rbnv
— Man Utd Updates (@HaYtHeMoViC17) November 29, 2022
“Southgate rightly trusts [Raheem] Sterling in big games but his form with Chelsea and in his first two World Cup games leave me wanting a bit more.”
The form of England’s young attacking trio will give Southgate a headache when it comes to team selection but based on what we’ve seen on the pitch at this World Cup perhaps youth trumps Sterling’s experience.
What are England’s biggest concerns in the knockout stage?
Looming over England’s bright start to the tournament is the edgeless performance against the United States. Defensive resilience was on full display but in attack England lacked cutting edge and were not clinical enough in front of goal which resulted in many deflated fans.
The side snuck away with a point in this match, but if a similar performance rears its head in the knockout match against stronger opposition then England may not be so lucky.
Individual errors have often been an unwelcome occurrence for some England players in the lead up to this World Cup. Should such errors happen in a knockout match, England may find it hard to recover from their opposition who would likely play more defensively to protect a lead.
“You can’t afford to carry below-par players at this stage of a tournament” Smith said. “You can’t afford for the kind of error Maguire made to give away the ball and concede a penalty in the Nations League game against Germany.”
England have looked very organized and focused so far and have managed the phases of play excellently to keep the game in their control. But sometimes a mistake or a bit of bad luck can rewrite the script.
A positive start
England will take the positives from their group stage experience and hope to iron out any lingering deficiencies as they enter the business-end of the tournament. They will face much tougher opposition from this point forward and will hope that they can outplay and out score anyone.
But in the knockouts, sometimes you need more than just to play better to go deep into the tournament:
“You also need a bit of luck,” Smith said, “and to pray that the luck doesn’t go against you.”
Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’ in 2010 against Germany and seemingly endless penalty shoot-out failures serve to prove that England are often starved of luck in the World Cup.
This year, they will look to eat a big slice of luck if they are to go all the way.