Analysis: England, options in attack, doubts in defence and the elephant in the room

Before anyone starts talking about England’s hopes of winning the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, there is one big fact that should be mentioned: the elephant in the room that conveniently gets forgotten in the waves of optimism ahead of a major tournament, when everyone dusts down their copy of Three Lions and starts to sing “it’s coming home…”

England have never progressed past the quarterfinals of a major tournament held outside of Europe.

So forget 2018’s brave run to the semifinals in Russia or Gazza’s tears in Italy in 1990 and even Nobby Stiles dancing on the pitch at Wembley back in 1966, when the Beatles still ruled the world.

Better to remember how they crashed out of the group stage in Brazil in 2014 or the painful displays in South Africa in 2010 (when the climate should have helped them), according to Xinhua.

They lost in the quarters against Brazil in 2002 and didn’t even qualify for US 1994, and while many still curse the ‘Hand of God’ in Mexico 1986, once again they crashed into the glass ceiling of the last-eight, as they had also done in Mexico in 1970.

Maybe this time hopes are not as high: although 15 months ago they were after Gareth Southgate’s side showed their positive evolution by reaching the final of the European Championships.

Semifinals in the 2018 World Cup, finalists in 2021 in European Championships, it seemed the next step was to win a major tournament, but in the last 15 months, Southgate seems to have lost his way, switching from a flat back four, to three central defenders and wing-backs and back to a back four. That apparent loss of confidence saw a poor Nations League campaign end with relegation to the second tier – hardly the sort of display that makes you think they could be World Cup winners.

Constant changes to his starting 11, coupled with injuries, mean it is hard to predict just what Southgate’s side to face Iran on November 21 will actually look like.

However, not all hope should be lost: England has three excellent goalkeepers, Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale and Nick Pope, Harry Kane is a world-class striker, Raheem Sterling has matured as a player since 2018 and still offers pace and trickery, while others such as Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, can also offer talent, hard work and goals.

On paper, Southgate looks to have many more options going forward than in Russia four years ago, when he had a strong starting 11 but little backup from the bench.

In midfield, Southgate has a balanced pairing of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, with Mount offering goals while Jordan Henderson offers experience, although England could struggle if Rice gets injured or suspended.

The big problems look to be in defense, where injuries have robbed Southgate of Chelsea wingbacks Reece James and Ben Chilwell, while Kyle Walker will travel with only a handful of minutes under his belt after having a groin operation in early October.

Kieran Trippier can be relied on at right-back and is excellent with set pieces (and can cover on the left if needed), and Luke Shaw is solid on the left, even though he has not always been the first choice for Manchester United this season.

Manchester United’s Harry Maguire is included in Southgate’s squad, despite just one league start since August. That shows how important the big defender is to Southgate, but Maguire’s lack of pace means that if he plays, it will probably be as part of a back three alongside Eric Dier and John Stones, who is also important for playing the ball out from the back.

Ben White’s ability to cover in central defense or at right back, where he has been for Arsenal this season, gives him plenty of options, while Conor Coady might not set hearts racing, but he has certainly benefitted from a loan move to Everton this season.

Other players to make the squad are James Maddison, who gets his reward for an excellent start to the season with Leicester City, while Callum Wilson has also earned his ticket after netting six goals for Newcastle United.

Southgate also said Manchester City’s Kalvin Phillips, who was a fixture in the Euros, was worth taking a risk on, despite his injury problems this season and Phillips’ inclusion perhaps highlights a lack of midfield options.

So all in all, England have talent going forward, but they do look to have some weaknesses, such as a lack of a second specialist left-back, questions about Maguire’s fitness and pace, and a lack of fit alternatives to Bellingham and Rice.

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