by Dom Smith
If pre-tournament expectations were an accurate measure of how well a team will actually do, England may as well head to Doha airport and return home today. I’ve heard hardly anyone predict England to reach the semis, the final, or win the World Cup. It seems to be quarters or worse in the eyes of most.
When Gareth Southgate led England to Russia 2018 in his first tournament as manager, there was very little expectation for what they might achieve. Five-and-a-half years on, the pressure is off for Southgate’s England once more.
They had been underwhelming in 2018 qualifying — and headed into the tournament having failed to win a single knockout match since 2006. Immediately you’re reminded of why so little was expected of England in Russia. The squad Southgate took was the weakest England have ever taken to a tournament.Embed from Getty Images
They regrouped from Euros penalty heartache to trundle through qualifying with ease, but they arrive in Qatar having lost their way since. If anything that’s the euphemism of the year — England haven’t won any of their last six matches. Their grim form since March brought the ignominy of relegation to the Nations League’s second tier.
But perhaps that’s fitting. England do feel like a Class B proposition now. Assertions that Southgate has an endless conveyor belt of talent to select from are inaccurate. It’s true that they have a cluster of exciting attackers and a surplus of elite-level full-backs. But besides that, it’s a skeleton squad in which the quality of options has regressed since England’s 2021 summer love-in.
What makes matters worse for Southgate is that in losing Ben Chilwell and Reece James to injury on the eve of this tournament, his full-back options are heavily depleted. Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw will start. Iran, the US and Wales can do their homework early.
The inclusions of James Maddison and Conor Gallagher may have tempted some to wonder whether Southgate might be about to ditch his pragmatic nature in favour of more expansive football. He won’t. Southgate will persist with 3-4-3, and even if he doesn’t: England are not going to play risky, heavy-metal football. Maddison is in because of his blistering form and Gallagher for his work ethic, flexibility and pressing intensity. They are fringe selections, not signals of a last-minute change in philosophy.
Whether 3-4-3 is the people’s choice or not, England are clear favourites to win Group B. It is the hardest group according to FIFA rankings, but they have more than enough to win all three games. From there, their potential is tougher to gauge.Embed from Getty Images
The saving grace for England is that nearly all of the major nations have also slumped in recent months. France arguably have too many good players and so Didier Deschamps has failed to build any kind of squad consistency — leading to similarly poor results to England. Germany are regenerating unconvincingly, the Netherlands lack firepower, Spain blow hot and cold, and European champions Italy haven’t even qualified.
Elsewhere, Belgium’s golden generation is losing some of its sheen, and Portugal are still tying themselves in knots over whether or not to start TalkTV star Cristiano Ronaldo. Only South American giants Brazil and Argentina head into the tournament in genuinely fear-inducing form.
So England find themselves in the same boat as the rest of the best in Europe. They will fear no one for that reason. And rightly so. But challenging at the business end of this World Cup still seems unlikely. It’s been a long while since we’ve seen the best of England’s attacking vim and verve with the players in national team colours.
It will surely be Southgate’s last tournament in charge, and it looks set to taper off into mediocrity. Remember the Sven days? It may be quarters and home again. England, prove us wrong.