Daniel Dyson outlines why England fans should be optimistic about their side's chances in Russia.
As many as 52 years and 12 World Cups have gone by since Sir Alf Ramsey led England to World Cup glory in 1966. This makes captain Harry Kane’s fighting claim that England can win the World Cup in Russia, and that “nothing else is good enough”, a tad optimistic.
The last remnants of the ‘golden generation’ have disappeared. Scholes, Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard look set to be replaced by Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier. Also, with an average of fewer than 20 caps per player, fans could be excused for being devoid of belief this time around.
"A route to the quarter-final seems all but guaranteed"
However, freed from expectation and scars, could Kane and co. be the first Englishmen since 1966 to ensure that football is coming home?
Two simple wins against Tunisia and Panama will allow us to qualify from Group G, no matter the result of our final clash with Belgium. One of Poland, Senegal, Colombia or Japan will then await us in the second round – all teams that we have the talent to dispose of. A route to the quarter-final, therefore, seems all but guaranteed.
Our manager, Gareth Southgate, has shown he is not afraid to make big calls, leaving the ever-present Wayne Rooney out of his first squad in March 2017. He has a ruthless side which Roy Hodgson lacked and will not shy away from punishing players’ mistakes, as shown by his decision to leave injury-prone Jack Wilshere and the out-of-form Joe Hart off the plane.
Although Southgate’s selection has been criticised for lack of international experience, our squad does have experience at the highest club level. Gary Cahill won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012, Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold played in the Champions League final this year with Liverpool, while Kyle Walker, Fabian Delph and Raheem Sterling all played major roles in Manchester City’s unprecedented 100-point Premier League season.
Furthermore, the youngsters picked all have plenty of tournament experience with England youth teams. For example, Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has played 54 youth games for England, and Chelsea's Ruben Loftus-Cheek has 40 England youth caps.
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Southgate also knows his best formation, something which previous managers have not. Using three centre-backs will allow both wing-backs to bomb forward against Tunisia and Panama, overloading their defences. Then, against Belgium, the wing-backs can form a back-five to shut out their array of attacking talent, spearheaded by Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
England have had miserable luck with goalkeepers in years gone by. We have been forced to bear witness to Scott Carson’s howler against Croatia, leading to us missing out on a European Championship place in 2008, Robert Green’s cataclysmic error against the USA in the 2010 World Cup and Joe Hart’s miserable Euro 2016.
It was vital Southgate picked a safe pair of hands to give fans a break from goalkeeping blunders this time around, something he has done by giving Jordan Pickford the no.1 shirt. He has made no errors leading to goals this season, compared to veteran Joe Hart’s four. Also, Southgate has praised Pickford’s agility and his capability of making big saves, adding that “his distribution is excellent”.
Meanwhile, dropping Kyle Walker into an unfamiliar right-sided centre-back position has added much-needed pace to our defence. This has resulted in clean sheets in our winter friendlies against Brazil and Germany, proving that England’s defence can stand toe-to-toe with the best forwards.
Goalkeeper? Check. Defence? Check. But how about midfield? Henderson and Dier as a midfield pair could appear to lack creativity but may actually be needed to provide extra-protection for the defence, allowing our more creative, attacking players to flourish.
As for attack, we are spoilt for choice for options behind the striker. Raheem Sterling is coming off the back of a wonderful season with Manchester City, scoring 18 and assisting 11, while talented attacking midfielders Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard add further dimensions to the attack.
And, of course, we have Harry Kane – arguably the best striker in world football having scored 30 goals for Tottenham this season. If this fails, we can call upon Marcus Rashford or Jamie Vardy to come off the bench, able to scare any defence with their sheer pace, scoring 36 goals between them in all competitions this season.
England sides have failed time and time again to deliver at major tournaments, so optimism around the country will be reserved. But with an easy group and beatable second-round opponents, we can expect a quarter-final place. Add to this a bold manager, an assured formation, a reliable defence and a world-class attack, and in Moscow on Sunday 15 July we well may see Harry Kane do what no Englishman since Bobby Moore has been able to do: lift the World Cup to make it ‘lucky 13’ for England.
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