England crashed out of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after an agonising quarter-final defeat to reigning champions France. Aurélien Tchouaméni and Olivier Giroud scored France's goals, before a miss from the penalty spot from Harry Kane – who had earlier scored from 12 yards – sent England packing. It is yet another disappointing end to a major tournament for England, who had made the semi finals at Russia 2018 and the final at Euro 2020. Even though they didn't make it past the last eight on this occasion, the impressive performance against France left many feeling positive about England's future.
Whether that future is under Gareth Southgate or not remains to be seen, but the current manager has undoubtedly changed the public mindset about England. The team is in a far, far better place than when he took over in 2016.
Here, we look at the reasons to be optimistic about England's future and their chances of ending their long trophy drought with this group of players.
Despite being just 19 years old, Jude Bellingham was one of England’s players of the tournament. He displayed his versatility by starting off as part of a double pivot in Southgate’s 4-2-3-1, before playing as a number eight in a 4-3-3, alongside Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice.
Bellingham's ability to do different jobs and switch roles in games allowed Southgate to flip the triangle in midfield from game to game, as well as within individual matches. He has shown that he can drop short to receive deep before turning and breaking lines with his passing through the inside channels, and also play higher up the pitch. The forward pass that led to Mason Mount winning England’s second penalty against France (below) also showcased his ability to find runners from deep; something he does on a regular basis for Borussia Dortmund.
He provides huge amounts of energy, often underlapping advanced full-backs or a winger who is holding the width, and did this particularly well at this World Cup on England’s left side. His relationship with Phil Foden has been a huge positive of England’s play; it's not a stretch to believe that England should be basing their teams at future tournaments around these two.
Without the ball, Bellingham allows England to press, but he also has the tactical awareness to hold a solid shape if needs be. His counter-pressing and ability to win second balls made England far more effective when it came to snuffing out opposition counter-attacks and then transitioning forward quickly. He is a massively exciting player with an incredibly bright future at both club and international level.
At this World Cup, Southgate has shown just how much quality and variety England have in the wide positions. The players have broken down compact blocks and also scored inventive goals with quick attacking transitions. With England’s midfield three winning the ball back so consistently, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka were regularly set forward with the opposition out of position, in the hope they could take advantage of the resulting space. This brought most success in the second half against Iran and in the first half against Wales, plus in scoring the key second goal against Senegal after an incisive counter-attack from deep.
In the quarter final against France, England showed their ability to counter a counter. They prevented a Kylian Mbappé breakaway before finding Saka, who combined with Bellingham and won their first penalty of the evening. This ability to turn defensive transition into attacking chances is what separates the best sides from the rest – especially in tournament football, where opponents often set up with a withdrawn block. France did exactly that, and England looked threatening in the rare moments when their opponents committed players forward.
When breaking down a deeper block, the variety in the type of wide forward England now boast helped them adapt to different opponents. What they do always have, though, is players who are able to beat their direct opponent in a one-on-one battle, which is hugely valuable.
Their ability on the ball means two opponents often come towards them, which frees up a teammate, and the likes of Bellingham or Jordan Henderson have the energy to make an off-the-ball run through the inside channel or around the outside (above). This in turn takes opponents away from England’s most dangerous ball-carriers, allowing them to progress into the penalty area more often. England’s wide forwards scored nine of their 13 goals at the World Cup in Qatar. Saka, Foden, Grealish, Rashford and Sterling all provide a goal threat from wide, despite all being noticeably different types of player.
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One of the biggest positives from England’s tournament was how well they played in big games with a back four, both with and without the ball. Declan Rice’s continuing improvement since the Euros made a big difference, but the defenders had also grown more used to playing together.
England often built with a back three as left-back Luke Shaw advanced, with right-back Kieran Trippier or Kyle Walker narrowing inside on the right. This allowed England to push players forward on the left, with rotations on that flank a significant part of what made England so dangerous going forwards. Meanwhile, Walker’s pace was key in the moments England adapted into a back three, particularly against Mbappé and Ismaïla Sarr in the knockout games. In future, Reece James is a capable alternative to Walker; he is versatile enough to play in a back four or a back three, though with more ability going forwards.
Playing with a back four allowed Southgate to keep his midfield three (above), and the way they won the ball back so consistently meant England could keep their opponents locked into their half for longer periods. In the past, with a back five, they might have dropped off more often, rather than staying on the front foot to sustain their attacking pressure. Crucially, this also left centre-backs Harry Maguire and John Stones isolated in far fewer one-on-one situations.
Harry Kane’s performances were another positive to take from the tournament. He consistently dropped short, took the ball in cleanly and allowed England’s wingers to advance and provide a goal threat of their own. Kane also drifted wide into the inside channels to help the full-backs advance, and allow the number eights to rotate into wide, advanced positions.
Kane’s ability to secure possession and hold the ball up against big centre-backs not only helps England launch attacks, but also alleviates pressure on the defence. This is yet another reason England were more comfortable in a back four at this tournament.
Higher up the pitch, he pins central defenders. He gave Dayot Upemecano a torrid time in the quarter final against France, rolling his opponent to create himself a huge chance and drawing a string of rash challenges, one of which almost led to an England penalty.
It is Kane’s movement that gets the wide players into the inside channels (above), which is precisely where they want to get on the ball and where they are at their best. He creates time and space for the wide players, who regularly beat one opponent and draw another towards the ball. This means the opposition can end up with less of a threat on the counter-attack as another player has to drop back to help out in defence. This was the case in the France game, where Antoine Griezmann was constantly required to work back into deep positions and had a remarkable defensive output.
Kane’s attacking influence means big teams are now adapting defensively to react to the threat that England pose. This certainly hasn’t always been the case.
England’s counter-press was a huge positive from the World Cup in Qatar, and it helped them sustain longer periods of pressure throughout the tournament. The only times they dropped into a lower block were in brief moments against France and Senegal.
When defending in a more withdrawn block, England used a 4-1-4-1 block (below), with their back line becoming very compact. With Rice covering the spaces between the lines, England’s second unit of four then forced the ball outwards, and Rice was available to jump forward and cover if the opposition penetrated through the middle.
With narrowed full-backs, England left more space for their opponents in the wide areas. England’s wingers were then forced to recover back more, covering on the outside of the back four. Although initially this meant England’s wide counter-attacks were less effective, Kane’s ability to hold the ball up meant there was no need for concern, as he gave teammates more time to break up the pitch and join the attack. The deeper wingers also allowed England’s number eights to individually jump forward and press alongside Kane (above), meaning England defended with a 4-4-2 when needed. When England regained the ball, their number eights were then in a more advanced position to join a counter-attack.
A quarter-final exit looks like a regression compared to the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020. However, this tournament, in many ways, proved a step forward for England. They have every chance of building on this experience and finally ending their wait for a trophy in Germany at Euro 2024. They will be among the favourites to win the tournament, which in itself is an indication of how far they have come.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice