England and football are nearly synonymous. The Premier League and its clubs are the dominant force in the globalization of football consumption, and particularly for the growth of soccer fandom in the United States. The significance of the sport in society and culture is undeniable, and the national team in particular has seen its fair share of support from pop bands such as New Order, Oasis, and of course the famous collaboration between Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds for “Three Lions.”
There is tremendous pressure and expectation on England. Football is a major part of the popular national identity, and the national team, fair or not, carries that weight come major tournament time. With the culture around the team and the talent at their disposal, they are expected to win against the best of the best on the international stage…
But they haven’t won a major tournament since the 1966 World Cup.
Despite that, England have been a team on the verge of greatness for two tournaments now. In 2018 Gareth Southgate took a group to Russia that was a blend of established England players and in-form players, new and old. They got to the semifinal.
At Euro 2020 (in 2021) the squad was a different sort of blend, one of established Southgate England players and talents from the next generation of England players. Mason Mount, Declan Rice, and Kalvin Phillips featured regularly throughout the tournament while Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, and Phil Foden featured in rotation. They got to the final that time, where they painfully lost on penalties to Italy at Wembley stadium.
These were England’s best tournament efforts since 1990, but it still isn’t good enough by the nation’s high expectations. The manager and players have suffered criticism for it, and they’ll be hoping they still have what it takes to go far.
They certainly still have the talent for it, as they showed in their emphatic 6-2 victory over Iran in their group stage opener. Their young stars put on a clinic in the first half, and their depth was on display as they finished it off in the second. England’s dreams can become reality in 2022, but they have to find the right balance between Southgate’s trusted veteran’s and breakthrough players in the 2022 squad.
There is, as usual, a solid mix of talent. So how will Southgate utilize them?
A major factor for a successful England setup is identifying which players can push the game forward away from danger areas, and which players can come off the bench and offer something different in possession, particularly going forward. At the Euros a year ago, it was Grealish and Luke Shaw, two players who thrived with the space ahead of them, created by England’s deeper set up, and could drive forward effectively while opposition defenders were still reeling.
Both can still fulfill those roles this time around, but in terms of keeping things fresh the Three Lions have a major talent coming through who can balance play and drive forward in possession.
Enter Jude Bellingham, England’s next generational player who might get this chance to really make himself known at the World Cup. He’s been a budding superstar since his time starting for Birmingham City as a 16-year old, and has since only further developed his game with Borussia Dortmund. He’s been electric so far this season, playing effectively across the pitch and even coming up with big goals in Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League play. His box-to-box prowess could be huge if he’s given the chance to slot in next to Declan Rice, and it could take England’s midfield a step further in its ability to control and win games.
He showed why that’s the case on Monday, scoring the opening goal off of a cross from Shaw and playing a crucial role in keeping the game forward in England’s favor. This area of the pitch is a key for England’s chances, and was an area lacking in influence last time out.
Rice, Bellingham, and Mason Mount started in midfield, giving England a good defensive screen with confidence on the ball, a box-to-box young phenom, and a seasoned, forward thinking creator in good form.
This set up suits either of Gareth Southgate’s apparent England models, which are: 1. Just don’t concede whatever you do, and 2. They suck, let’s attack. The latter is the less common strategy, given Southgate’s preference for defensive stability, which is why players like Bellingham are huge for the first plan.
It’s a safe plan, but the problem is it leaves England reliant on creating on the break with fewer numbers forward. Harry Kane is a veteran at playing this way, and has always partnered well with Raheem Sterling, but they’ve not always gotten much help. That has to change. There is quality in midfield, and forwards like Saka, Grealish, and the in-form Marcus Rashford all got on the scoresheet on Monday to show just how much attacking talent the Three Lions have. Southgate has excellent options to change things up and take pressure off the defense, and the ambition shown in the opening game needs to be carried forward.
With the balance of veterans and up and comers, England remain primed to compete. They have plenty of talent for the future, but this may be their best chance at ending all these years of hurt and bringing football home.