Can England Build Upon Their Euro Success And Their Recent World Cup Qualifying Exploits?

If you were looking for a hangover from the disappointment of the Euro final loss to Italy in July, signs are not hard to come by. Most players took extra time off before returning to their domestic clubs and consequently have had slow starts to the 2021/2022 Premier League season.

Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling have not looked themselves so far this season, both men have one and two premiership goals respectively to their names and we’re nearly at the end of November! Phil Foden and Ben Chilwell have taken time to return to their starting line-ups while Mason Mount has been in & out of his Chelsea side with niggling injuries. Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford through a combination of injury, fitness and form have contributed to the stuttering start that Man United have suffered.

This is not to say that no English players have impressed to start the year. One only needs to look at the embarrassment of riches at right back with Reece James and Trent Alexander-Arnold to find players in exceptional form and looking to cement their places in the 2022 World Cup squad. The depth is so impressive that it seems reasonable to assume that international glory can be found with this talented group of players, as long as Southgate continues to prioritise team balance over shoe-horning talented players into unfamiliar positions.

The individual ups and downs have not spilled over onto the national stage however, unbeaten in qualifying for a third World Cup in a row England have breezed through a group that had the potential to be tricky. They emerged with the strongest goal difference of +36 among all the European World Cup qualifiers, only conceding 3 goals in total. This is made all the more impressive when one considers the current and previous European champions Italy and Portugal will have to navigate two rounds of playoffs next March to reach the World Cup, having finished second in their groups.

Resilience through Suffering

Ever since the unceremonious exit by the hands of Iceland in the knockout stages of Euro 2016 no country has shown a similar level of sustained improvement as England. Gareth Southgate’s elevation to manager has produced a World Cup semi-final appearance in 2018, a European Championship final in 2021 and they have only lost once in qualifying for any major tournament in a dozen years. This level of consistency and performance at the later stages of major tournaments is something that England hasn’t achieved since the late 1960s. Even the golden generation of the early noughties only achieved 3 consecutive quarter-final appearances in international tournaments. England assistant manager Steve Holland put it best, “If we’re in the next final, the players will have a completely different feeling to the last one – because it was the first one. And the first one, you’re not quite sure. But next time, it will be different.”

Next time, yes. Having experienced metronomic disappointment for the entirety of my lifetime watching the national team, one can only hope that success is a by product of consistently being close. That the experience of losing in high-pressured situations makes England more resilient in future situations.

Perhaps the outstanding question for Southgate is ball retention and controlling the midfield. Against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, after scoring early, England sat back, invited pressure and were unable to hold onto the ball, ultimately conceding twice. A similar problem reared its ugly head this Summer against Italy in the Euro final, despite the improvement shown by the burgeoning partnership of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, when we scored early then lost control of the ball and Italy controlled possession, ultimately coming from behind to win the title.

Southgate has a year to find a solution to this problem, if possible at all. Quality central midfielders are on paper, in short supply for the current England squad. Being adaptable to a more possession based approach when needed, in addition to the strides we have already made as a high pressing, counter attacking team will only raise expectations for England to be major contenders at Qatar 2022.

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