It has been more than a decade since England won a knockout match in an international football tournament. In the 2006 World Cup, they beat Ecuador 1-0 in the Round of 16 to set up a quarterfinal against Portugal, which they then drew and lost via the deciding penalty shoot-out, because England always lose penalty shootouts.
Since then, tournaments for England have become progressively worse, and banal disappointment has become the expectation. The last World Cup looked like the nadir as England failed to even navigate their way out of their initial group after losing their first two games to Italy and Uruguay. The Italy game in particular highlighted a weakness in the makeup of the first team. Captain Steven Gerrard, well over 100 caps into a long career, and perhaps a waning force, started in central midfield in the stifling 90-degree Brazilian heat of tropical Manaus. The 34-year-old was unable to decisively influence the game, while opposing him, Andrea Pirlo, a year older at 35, put on a passing master class before the game descended into a stream of hopeful potshots as Italy held onto a 2-1 lead over the final 40 minutes. Gerrard retired from international football straight after the tournament—a last hurrah that raised no cheer.
Fast-forward to Euro 2016, and a similar problem emerged, as well as yet another low. This time, 30-year-old Wayne Rooney held the captain’s armband and great influence within the team. As a fruitless attempt to recover an early 2-1 deficit against Iceland in the Round of 16 dragged on, Rooney’s choice to drop deep into midfield, apparently unencumbered by manager Roy Hodgson’s tactical instructions, felt like an embrace of misplaced responsibility. By now without the athletic zip of his prime, he couldn’t power a recovery alone, but that didn’t stop him from trying. In truth, nobody on the England team played well that day, and they duly limped out, upset by the sheer will and endeavor of a more cohesive unit.
However, Rooney’s eventual international retirement a year later created a new dynamic for this squad and one which remains to this day. For once, the team is not dominated by the personality of an aging superstar. This England squad is full of players coming into their peak years and continuously improving their professional reputations. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, and Marcus Rashford all featured in that Iceland game, and all reappear this time around. (Veterans Jamie Vardy and Gary Cahill also appeared against Iceland and made the 2018 squad.) In 2016, they were relatively inexperienced both in international and continental club football. But in the two years since, so much has changed.
Back then, Kane was coming off a season in which he scored 25 goals and won the Premier League Golden Boot, but if you remove goals from penalties, his goal rate was around one every two games—solid, but not world beating. In the two seasons since, he’s ramped that already decent rate up by 50 percent and parked himself squarely among the truly elite strikers in the world. He’s fundamentally a top-class goal-scorer with a rock-solid temperament. He’s also now the captain and has become a reliable scorer in international game with eight goals in his last seven appearances.
Sterling played in Euro 2016 after a mixed first season under Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City. He’d contributed to eight goals all told in league play (six goals and two assists). This season, he scored 18 league goals and assisted 11 more to hit a rare “double-double.” His underlying expected goals and assists numbers—the number of goals he could expect to score and assist given the historical conversion rates of the shots he took and the chances he created—just about matched his production. At just 23 years old, Sterling’s success and form can’t be understated: He’s also become one of the elite attackers in the Premier League.
In 2016, Alli was 20 years old and coming off his first season in a top league. Rashford was rawer still, just 18 and four months into his entire senior career. In the interim, the Tottenham contingent of Kane, Alli, and Dier have added two years of Champions League football to their résumés, while Walker and Sterling, as well as John Stones and Fabian Delph, have a first league title to bask in on top of significant time under the expert tutelage of Pep Guardiola.
This England team is young compared with other World Cup squads, and the vast majority of players deemed likely to start are between the ages of 22 and 28.
World Cup 2018 squads number-crunched by age and experience pic.twitter.com/bXf74q26od— Nick Harris (@sportingintel) June 4, 2018
The over-30s in the squad, Cahill, Ashley Young, and Vardy, could well be part of the supporting cast. This is another way in which this England squad differs from many others at this tournament—and England sides of years past: These older players aren’t there based on reverence, historical achievements, or loyalty. They are in this squad because they have shown good recent form and provide solid backup. Most teams will finish this World Cup with a raft of international retirements from high-profile players who hung around for that last tournament. England won’t; their whole age profile is good.
There is also significant cohesion within the makeup of the squad. Whatever starting lineup manager Gareth Southgate picks is likely to feature multiple club teammates. Of the outfielders, 17 of the 20 selected spent last season playing for top six Premier League clubs, including a particular concentration within three teams. Tottenham have supplied five players, while Man City and Manchester United have supplied four. There’s further continuity across club lines from time spent in the under-21s. Five members of the squad know each other from the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship, while five more played under Southgate in the 2015 edition.
Southgate finds himself in a unique situation. Parachuted into the role after former manager Sam Allardyce was dismissed after just one game in charge due to a newspaper sting, Southgate initially appeared reluctant to take the full-time role, and as such, the expectations of him have never been high. He has no reputation for great tactical innovation but over time has devised a structure that appears flexible toward his players’ strengths yet pragmatic when considering possible weaknesses. Adapting Walker, typically a fullback for his club team, to be a third center back brings pace into an area of the pitch where the team was lacking. Playing a single defensive-minded midfielder in either Jordan Henderson or Eric Dier allows Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to populate the channels on either side with tireless running and an ability to prioritize defense or attack easily. Sterling can then support Kane alongside or drop back to bolster midfield areas. The manager has recognized that there are issues to solve in midfield and formulated a way to structure his team with no genuine playmaker.
For that’s the great absence in this side. England have been crying out for a naturally gifted, central-attacking midfielder since Paul Gascoigne left the side in the late 1990s. The players in this squad are used to thriving for their clubs thanks to the vision of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Christian Eriksen, or Paul Pogba, but no such English equivalent exists today. Yet the enforced pragmatism this brings seems to match up with the formula for success in modern international football. Portugal won Euro 2016 with ultra-stoic play—“don’t concede”—and England have the players and organization to be tough to beat, but they can also try to press high up the field because so many of the players are comfortable with the aggressive systems that Tottenham, Liverpool, and City employ. If England navigate their way out of the group and into the business end of the competition, they may struggle to out-play a more gifted side, but they can probably outwork them.
The question of whether England are good enough to win a World Cup is moot. The answer is that they are probably not. However, the signs of cohesion and progress within the team do indicate that they can compete well against whoever they might face. After so many years of mediocrity in finals, it would satisfy the fan base if the team just managed to actually play well.
Via the ELO rankings, which have much more predictive value than FIFA’s rankings, England are the seventh-best side in this tournament, so a quarterfinal would represent par, and maybe they’ll even win a knockout game in regulation! Intriguingly, their ELO ranking is the same as Italy’s prior to the 2006 World Cup. As you may know, the Azzurri won that tournament through hard work and good fortune rather than extravagant, expansive football. This tournament has worthy favorites in Brazil, Germany, France, and Spain but possibly lacks a generational team that is unerringly superior, and that opens the door for the rest. England are, as ever, in that second tier of teams that could bounce forward and get into the mix. They have the organization, and in Rashford, Sterling, Kane, and Alli, they have talented match-winners without the heavy expectation of achievement. They’ll also need plenty of luck, but that’s a given: No one wins a World Cup without it.