Why England Are Unlikely to Progress in 2023

by Dom Smith

The blunt truth is that in 2023 England are unlikely to meaningfully improve. And if they do improve, it will be almost impossible to know that they have done so. After two major tournaments in the last two calendar years, this will be a calmer year for Gareth Southgate’s side. That means easier opponents, more wins, and difficulty in knowing whether they are progressing or regressing compared to their 2022 form.

At this winter’s World Cup in Qatar, England posted their worst tournament showing under Southgate’s reign. However, they received less criticism than they did after their semi-final defeat to Croatia at the 2018 World Cup or defeat in the Euro 2020 final to Italy last summer. Although it was the last eight and out in Doha, the general feeling was that England dominated world champions France in their quarter-final.

England bowed out of the competition as top scorers in the tournament at the time and had 58 per cent of possession against Didier Deschamps’s eventual finalists. They thrashed Iran, Wales and Senegal and drew with a stubborn United States before meeting the French, who prevailed with a clinical counter-attacking performance aided by Harry Kane’s late penalty blunder.

After previous tournaments the usual ritual has been for a post-mortem and an inquest into why England failed so badly. But under Southgate and particularly at the 2022 World Cup, fans and the media seemed to unite in the view that it was simply the case that England had scored once and France had scored twice. In sport you can only control the controllables, and England played as well as they could reasonably have expected to play against the 2018 champions.

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The calendar year of 2023 will be a lot quieter for the national team. For instance, there will be no Nations League campaign. That will resume in 2024 following the Euros — and England will be in the competition’s second tier following relegation to League B because of their dismal 2022 showing in which they failed to win any of their six matches against three historical bogey teams: Germany, Italy and Hungary.

England’s entire year will incorporate qualification for Euro 2024 in Germany. They are in Group C — a five team group, meaning they do not face one of Europe’s real minnows. That means no San Marino or Gibraltar this time around.

Instead, the lowest ranked side in the group are Malta. England faced them in 2018 World Cup qualifying — labouring to a 2–0 home win in Southgate’s first match in charge, before winning 4–0 in Valletta in which many fans left at half-time with the game still goalless.

Joining England and Malta are North Macedonia, Ukraine and Italy. It will mean a first meeting with North Macedonia since it changed its name from FYROM (or, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). In Ukraine and Italy, England will face two sides very capable of causing them problems.

North Macedonia, Ukraine, England and Italy all qualified for Euro 2024. For North Macedonia it was a first ever major tournament, while for Ukraine it was a famous tournament in which their run to the quarter-finals was eventually ended with a 4–0 defeat to England in Rome.

Embed from Getty Images

Italy won the tournament, beating England in the final at Wembley, of course, but Roberto Mancini’s side then suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify for the 2022 World Cup — their fate sealed by defeat to… North Macedonia.

Two sides will qualify for the Euro 2024 automatically from each group, and the best third-place teams will go into the playoffs, meaning England’s failure to qualify would mark one of the greatest embarrassments in the national team’s 151-year history.

Because England’s group is a five-team rather than a six-team group, it allows them two free matchdays. One will see them travel to Glasgow to face Scotland in a friendly on 12 September. They will schedule a friendly for their other free matchday in October too, with details yet to be confirmed.

England’s year, then, will entail eight qualifiers and two friendlies — with their first match of the year, against Italy in Naples, set to be their sternest test.

It is entirely possible that England could improve and progress this year, but their fixtures are not the sorts of matches that will show whether they have progressed. They will not be defensively tested to anywhere near the extent they were at the World Cup. As such, it may not be until the Euro 2024 tournament in Germany — Southgate’s final bow as manager — before we know whether England are in a better state than they were in Qatar. After a turbulent few years for the national team, 2023 will mark the calm after the storm.

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