England head for World Cup without expectations of a nation
Gareth Southgate's squad don't have the usual feverish expectation
Gareth Southgate: “I think we know where we are, we’re a team ranked 13th in the world.” Photograph: Adam Davy/PA
England no longer expects. When Gareth Southgate named the squad for England’s 15th appearance at a World Cup finals – one win, two semi-finals, 52 years of hurt – the absence of jingoism and overblown optimism was practically a presence in the room.
Southgate will be forever connected to Winston Churchill for his lament – alleged – that when England needed something Churchillian and inspiring from Sven-Goran Eriksson, they received the thin-lipped dullness of the then leader of the Conservative Party Iain Duncan-Smith.
But as he gathered his 23 names together, Southgate was never going to summon Lord Nelson when the likes of Phil Jones and Fabian Delph, for all their Manchester profiles, are among the troops. England expects not that much.
“I think we know where we are, we’re a team ranked 13th in the world,” is Southgate’s attitude. “We’re a team that we know is developing but we’re not at the stage that Brazil and Germany have reached.”
You can hear the air escaping. Deflation as a policy. Any idea, therefore, of England as a heavyweight about to make a grand entrance and reassert themselves is inaccurate.
Such ambition has been eroded over a decade of disappointment and, in some cases, embarrassment. Out of the World Cup in Brazil after just two games, then the Iceland psychodrama at the European Championships, a bit like Joe Hart, England have dropped whatever international credibility they once clung to.
They travel to Russia, as Southgate says, as the team rated 13th in the world – a place below Denmark – and no-one, from Cumbria to Cornwall, is calling it an injustice. As Kyle Walker of Manchester City said, bluntly, it will take “a miracle” for England to win the World Cup.
No, England are going to take part, to play some convincing, recognisable international football – they hope – and should they leave at the quarter-final stage or even before, the wailing accompanying previous exits will be replaced with shrugs. Because England does not expect.
Of course, huge numbers of the English population still inhabit a Brexit-infused nationalism, and there will be bunting and bravado as the opening game against Tunisia in Volgograd approaches. That’s natural enthusiasm.
But after half an hour, if England’s football is prosaic and the game is goalless, an increasingly familiar sense of pessimistic realism will set in.
“I’ve got to be realistic abut the number of caps, the ages of the team and what our expectations of that should be,” Southgate says.
This is not (all) Southgate’s doing – his team won eight and drew two of their ten qualifiers to top Group F. It is his inheritance.
The decrease in expectation has been gathering pace since the World Cup of 2010, when England scraped through their group in South Africa by finishing second behind USA, met Germany in the last 16 and lost 4-1.
There was ill-luck in Frank Lampard’s legitimate goal not being given, which would have made the score 2-2. Had it been allowed, who knows?
Instead, led by the guile of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller, Germany peeled away, England’s manager Fabio Capello faded into irritation, enabling Roy Hodgson to come in like an insolvency expert to oversee the desk-clearing of national optimism.
By 2010 the view of the Premier League as an obstacle the England team had to get around, as opposed to its breeding ground, was firm. ‘English’ football continued to soar via its two principal divisions, but the sheer number of foreign players and managers – on short-term options in a sacking culture – has been a brake on English development. On any given Saturday English players make up around 33 per cent of the Premier League, and it shows.
If Capello had been the foreign-clever candidate, Hodgson was English-safe. Except he wasn’t. The English FA lurched again, to Sam Allardyce, who only lasted one game due to money and wine. Southgate, already within the FA system as the under-21 manager, initially said ‘No’. But he reconsidered.
To some he is too nice – too blazer – but the 47-year-old has a bit more to him than he shows. Southgate is sharp and intelligent and can be tough. Whether he is a coaching dynamo is another matter. He also represents continuity. But what Southgate lacks most of all, as the squad announcement revealed, is resources.
When England lost in 2010 to Germany, they had John Terry and Ashley Cole in defence, Steven Gerrard and Lampard in midfield plus a 24-year-old Wayne Rooney up front. All five would breeze into Southgate’s starting line-up. This is part of the recalibration of anticipation.
But these are the men of 2018. They are four established Premier League names and have had intense Champions League experiences this season. Overall, though, the squad is young in terms of age and international knowledge - only one player, Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, has more than 40 caps.
Cahill, 32, is along with Ashley Young and Jamie Vardy, over 30. But half the squad is aged between 19 and 25 with uncapped Liverpool teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold the most bold of Southgate’s inclusions.
That may have the appearance of a gamble, and there is always the possibility that things could go badly wrong in a group containing Tunisia (14th in Fifa rankings), Panama (55th) and Belgium (3rd).
But if England make it out of the group, play a measure of attractive, progressive football and then depart with respectability, the longer-term plan will be stressed. England are U-17 world champions, the U-19 European champions and the U-20 world champions. Southgate is a piece of that system.
There is a theme here and it is that England’s time at senior level is coming: the Phil Foden generation. Russia will be too soon, but it is part of a cycle of improvement and Qatar 2022 might be their time. Maybe 2026. Should it work out, the methodology will get the praise it deserves.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek could come to be the symbol of Southgate’s work in progress. At 22, the physically imposing, quick-witted and lithe attacking midfielder has had an injury-interrupted season on loan at Crystal Palace from Chelsea. Loftus-Cheek has completed only four 90 minutes since December, but that could mean freshness and he has the talent to make an impact.
He is unlikely to start, however. Southgate’s probable formation is a 3-4-2-1 with Alli and Raheem Sterling the two behind No. 9 Kane. Those three have pace and skill, although it would be a leap to say they are proven top-class internationals. (From the bench Vardy can provide an explosion, something different).
The same reservations apply to a midfield quartet that lacks obvious spark. If Southgate is cautious, his wide ‘midfielders’ will be Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier, both of Spurs. They are both defenders. Between them will be Henderson and Dier, another defensive player.
Henderson and Dier’s natural positional play mean Rose and Trippier would need to roam forward regularly if the front three are not to be isolated.
The bonus from Trippier and Rose is that both can fall back to form a five-man defence, which might be necessary against Belgium, for example.
Walker, stationed behind Trippier, will in theory push the Tottenham man wider and forward. Southgate’s desire is to see Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire bring the ball out of defence. All three have ability, it is producing it together at a finals that is in question.
Maguire, 25, went to Euro 2016 as a fan, so his rise is swift, but the Leicester City centre-half is comfortable in possession and Southgate has been influenced by Pep Guardiola’s style – defence as the beginning of creativity. Southgate has no De Bruyne, Sane or Silva, to change the gear of attacks though.
It is, at least, a plan and that has not always been the case with England.
But the plan has not been wholly persuasive during qualification, despite the statistical ease of England’s passage.
There were two draws, in Slovenia and Scotland, the latter secured via an injury-time equaliser from Kane. An injury-time winner in Slovakia was another rescue act and there was another at home to Slovenia. None of this builds expectation.
England’s last qualifier was a 1-0 win against a Lithuania side ranked 133rd in the world.
“Harry Kane delivers again in yet another dreary display” was a Daily Telegraph headline. England were described as “boring” and as “Gareth Southgate’s strugglers”.
Again, this is not all Southgate’s doing. England have lost just two of their last 40 World Cup qualifiers, yet have won only one finals match since 2006. To emerge from the group into the knockout phase, England are likely to need another victory. The expectation is that it will come against Panama after, perhaps, a draw in the opener against Tunisia.
That would then bring a possible decider against Belgium: Courtois-Kompany-De Bruyne-Hazard and the rest, players of England but not from England, players unavailable to Southgate.