FIFA World Cup 2018, Group G
FIFA World Cup Appearances: 14
Best Finish: Winners 1966
FIFA World Ranking: 12
England qualified as clear winners of what had always looked a generous Group F. They remained unbeaten through the campaign, keeping eight clean sheets in 10 games and confirming their finals spot with a game to spare.
The only blemish on the way to Russia was an early change of manager, with Sam Allardyce exiting stage right after his one and only game in charge of the national team – a last-gasp 1-0 win in Slovakia. Former England defender and Under-21 coach Gareth Southgate was drafted in as caretaker, but was subsequently confirmed permanently in the role and led the team untroubled through qualifying.
Both England and Southgate will be hoping to continue their encouraging form into the World Cup. In the 19 games since their disastrous Euro 2016 exit, England have only been beaten twice – friendly defeats in France and Germany – and are unbeaten in their last 10.
Scotland 2 England 2
England’s major wobble in qualifying came in Scotland. The 114th instalment of the world’s oldest international fixture was fiery and full of late drama.
England began four points clear at the top of Group F and dominated the game from the off. Harry Kane had a long-range effort over the stranded Craig Gordon cleared off the line by Kieran Tierney, with Marcus Rashford shooting wide from the rebound, but the match went into half-time goalless.
Then came a breathless second half in which four goals were exchanged in the last 20 minutes. Substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fired England ahead on 70 minutes, but two exquisite free-kicks from Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths – his first and second goals for Scotland, one in either corner past a despairing Joe Hart – within only four minutes of each other turned the game dramatically on its head with time running out. Hampden Park rocked – that is, until Kane volleyed home an ice-cool equaliser for England in the fourth minute of stoppage time (above). For all of their dominance, however, the visitors could only come away with a point.
England 2 Slovakia 1
First hosted second in the group on matchday eight of 10, and after needing a 95th-minute Adam Lallana strike to claim the points in the reverse fixture England were well aware of the challenge Slovakia would present.
That challenge only grew when Stanislav Lobotka ghosted in behind a sleeping defence to give the visitors the lead in the third minute. It took more than half an hour for England to hit back, Eric Dier (below) equalising with a smart strike from a Marcus Rashford cross. Slovakia weren’t without their threat, but in the end it was Rashford himself who struck a superb winner from outside the area. England had their three points against tough opposition, and a month later secured their place in Russia with a 1-0 victory over Slovenia at Wembley.
Defender, 28, Manchester City
Born in Sheffield, Walker rose through the ranks of the Sheffield United academy and quickly moved into their first team. A big move to Tottenham Hotspur was quick in coming, but the young Walker failed to break through immediately and instead left for loan spells back at Sheffield United, QPR and Aston Villa. Returning a more streetwise and physical defender, Walker flourished as an adventurous right-back under Mauricio Pochettino, his rapid acceleration providing the team with an attacking edge both in possession and on the counter.
Having returned north to join the Pep Guardiola revolution at Manchester City, Walker (below, left) has continued his progression as first-choice right-back in a team that became the first to register 100 points in a Premier League season. His ability on the ball and adaptability has seen Gareth Southgate move him inside from right wing-back to the right side of the three-man central defence – a position he is almost certain to start from throughout the tournament, as England look to progress the ball from deep.
Attacking midfielder, 23, Manchester City
A QPR youth product snapped up by Liverpool at 15, Sterling spent three years in the first team at Anfield and was part of the deadly strike trio – alongside Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge – that almost drove the club to a first ever Premier League win in 2014. A controversial but ultimately justified move to Manchester City followed in the summer of 2015, and the 23-year-old heads for the World Cup on the back of the most successful season of his career: 23 goals in all competitions and a maiden Premier League title.
Excellent on the ball in tight areas and possessing lethal acceleration, Sterling (above, right) has the potential to beat any defender – but he remains frustratingly inconsistent when it comes to his end product. Only two goals from 38 international appearances would bear that out, but he is a vastly improved player from the still youthful figure who went to the 2014 World Cup and suffered more than most in a desperate Euro 2016 campaign. If Sterling can form an effective attacking relationship with those around him, he could yet be a star for England at this tournament.
Forward, 24, Tottenham Hotspur
The man chosen to lead England in Russia is, simply, one of the finest goalscorers in world football. A Tottenham youth product who didn’t look an obvious world-beater in a succession of loan spells at clubs including Leyton Orient, Millwall and Leicester City, Kane has matured into a fabulous all-round forward with a relentless thirst for goals. In four full Premier League seasons under Mauricio Pochettino, he has scored 21, 25, 29 and 30 goals respectively – and, still only 24, he shows no signs of slowing down.
For England, Kane has 13 goals in 24 appearances – although seven in his last six points to a man in form. A versatile forward who is by no means a tap-in merchant, he strikes well from distance, attacks crosses with intent and is a confident penalty taker. He will work tirelessly and has vastly improved his link-up play with runners from midfield, particularly when required to hold the ball for prolonged periods. As long as England can create chances for Kane, he is certain to provide them with a return.
The Head Coach
Gareth Southgate, 47
Despite an England pedigree as both player and Under-21 coach, Southgate’s wasn’t a smooth or expected accession to the role of head coach. Taking the job on a caretaker basis after the embarrassing departure of Sam Allardyce, however, he was subsequently confirmed in the job with a four-year contract to in theory oversee England at the next two major tournaments.
As a player, Southgate started out as a central midfielder at Crystal Palace but converted into a ball-playing centre-back while at Aston Villa and continued there for his final club, Middlesbrough. He accumulated more than 400 Premier League appearances and won 57 caps for England in a distinguished international career that is sadly best known for the penalty miss that saw England lose to Germany in the Euro 96 semi finals.
His move into management with Middlesbrough came earlier than many – including him – expected, but despite a promising start he took the northeast club down from the Premier League in his third season and was sacked not long into the following campaign. Resurfacing in the England set-up, he impressed with the Under-21s before stepping in to fill the void left by Allardyce’s abrupt exit – but he has taken to the role well, restoring a level of morale and pride in the squad and speaking eloquently and honestly in his dealings with the media.
On the pitch, Southgate has moved towards using a back three, maintaining (increasingly convincingly) that this particular structure is the most effective to get the best out of this current England squad. He will look to advocate a possession-based style, coupled with aggressively high pressing from his ultra-mobile forwards. Dominating the ball and playing through the thirds where possible is how we can expect to see Southgate’s England play at this tournament.
It has been evident for some time that Southgate wants to select a goalkeeper who is effective with the ball at his feet. That man would seem to be Everton’s Jordan Pickford, who barring a late shift in policy looks certain to be the number one in Russia.
When England are looking to build short from Pickford, the midfield unit plays an integral role. The back line will need as much time and space as possible to safely and cleanly build out from deep. If doing so against a pressing pair of strikers, the back unit of four (three defenders plus goalkeeper) should comfortably overload and play out cleanly. With only two pressing opponents, England can drive out of defence with the ball (above, left). From here, they can draw in additional pressers from their opponents’ midfield, freeing up more advanced players such as Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling or Jesse Lingard.
Alternatively, England may face opponents who press with three players, or even more in the case of high pressing teams. For this, England’s deepest midfielder – usually Eric Dier or Jordan Henderson – will play a more active role in the build-up. If teams do press high and squeeze in on Dier or Henderson, then the wing-backs may be an alternate outlet for Pickford and the back line (above right). By creating maximum width in their positioning, Kieran Trippier or Danny Rose could be found with lofted diagonal passes, enabling England to still build from deep.
Captain Harry Kane is nailed on to play the majority of England’s matches as a central striker, but the dynamics of the supporting cast is still somewhat uncertain.
Southgate will deploy a trio of attacking players to help build from midfield into attack, and then support the lone striker Kane within the final third. Raheem Sterling has been in scintillating form for Manchester City, and has improved both his movement and decision-making despite concerns about his final ball. Dele Alli, despite fears over his temperament in the cauldron of World Cup football, is another likely option; his link-up play and relationship is the strongest with Kane, as shown in their performances for Tottenham.
Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford are both in the mix, too. Neither are perhaps seen to best effect in the safety-first tactical approach employed by Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, but Lingard in particular is an intelligent attacking runner whose movement often creates space for others – and he has shown a propensity to get big rather than regular goals for his club. Rashford (above, right) is the most direct of Southgate’s options in this area. He strikes the ball superbly, with well-taken goals against Costa Rica and Slovakia putting him in contention for a starting spot. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the relative outsider of the bunch, would offer more power and aggression than his lighter and more agile midfield teammates.
A key issue for Gareth Southgate is how to get the best out of Harry Kane (above). The newly announced permanent captain will bear a certain weight on his shoulders as he leads the Three Lions in only his second major tournament with England. His previous outing at Euro 2016 proved disappointing, as Kane looked lethargic, ineffective and, for the only time in his career to date, void of confidence. An ankle injury potentially ruled him out of this summer tournament, but an effective rehab process soon quashed those fears.
In recent matches, Kane has provided more variety within his attacking movements for England. Particularly in recent friendlies, Kane has dropped deep when England are in possession. This has often dragged his marker out of shape, creating more gaps for teammates to exploit with runs from deep. This movement is ideally suited to the likes of Lingard and Sterling, both of whom can time their forward runs to break even the tightest of offside traps.
However, this movement from Kane takes him further away from the opposition’s penalty area – where he is one of the best in the world. Twelve of Kane’s 13 England goals have come inside the box, with nine of those being first-time finishes. If England are to get the best out of Kane, and so progress, they need to find a method that ensures their most lethal attacker is consistently in the right place, at the right time, all of the time.