To win the World Cup, you must have several world-class players. Previous winners fit this pattern; England did not in 2018 or 2022 under Gareth Southgate. Are the Three Lions really underachieving? Where would someone like Mauricio Pochettino or Thomas Tuchel get them?
It’s time to sit down and realise what you are expecting from this group of players.
We were recently reminded of England’s starting XI in that semi-final against Croatia four years ago. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard featured, with the defeat resulting in a third-place play-off against Belgium in which Phil Jones, Danny Rose and Fabian Delph started. Out went typical England, ‘bottling’ it against the first elite side they faced.
Four years ago France won the showpiece tournament in Russia with Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Raphael Varane and Hugo Lloris at their disposal. Before that, it was Joachim Low’s Germany team with Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer and Toni Kroos. Then we reach 2010 and Spain, who are the best international side of this generation. This is what it takes to win World Cups. No matter how good this England side is, they do not hold a candle to previous world champions.
And yet defeat against the literal reigning world champions on Saturday has resulted in yet another inquest about Southgate’s future as England boss.
Putting aside the small matter of a final, semi-final and quarter-final, Southgate has done a brilliant job in fixing the culture and making players want to represent England again. In my lifetime, no Three Lions boss has done what he has been able to do – end the divide between his players engendered by their clubs. Sven Goran Eriksson’s downfall ultimately came down to this. What a squad that was back in 2006; it was certainly a collection of players in the same bracket as those French and German sides.
But that was a golden age for football in general, and it is obvious to see why England failed. None of this ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ rubbish. The players cost their country because they were so intent on domestic dominance at club level.
Fans forget a major tournament only comes around every two years; there are no Carabao Cups to pick up trinkets when it comes to international football. So the mentality that England should be European champions at worst needs putting in the bin.
Southgate is certainly an elite man manager who is adored by the England players. He says all of the right things and is England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey – who led the Three Lions to their only major trophy in 1966. The truth is, no matter how you look at it, this current crop of players is not as good as France, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal or even Germany, who have more world-class players than England, depending on your definition of the phrase. That might sound ludicrous but I am looking at players like Serge Gnabry, Antonio Rudiger and the three goalkeepers who would all start over Jordan Pickford for England.
As a Scotsman I have to say that English fans/pundits/media can come across as arrogant and some definitely believe this is a squad capable of being world champions. Many fans actually have their feet on the ground and do not feel entitled, but that is not the narrative the media like to push.
Laughable combined XIs and former players saying ‘How many French players get in this England squad?’, for example, is embarrassing. Other countries will be p***ing themselves at Danny Murphy saying this. France are literally world champions. How many England players is Didier Deschamps taking? Maybe Jude Bellingham and probably Harry Kane, even if Olivier Giroud makes everyone around him better.
Harry Kane is the only undebatable world-class talent in this current England squad. Bukayo Saka is maybe in that bracket, or on the periphery at worst. Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice have that potential, but they are not there yet.
The squad has players playing in the Europa League, Conference League and with no European football at all. Pickford has made three Europa appearances by the age of 28, and hasn’t played in the Champions League, unlike every goalkeeper in the semi-finals of this World Cup. John Stones was the only defender in the starting XI against Iran to be a current UCL player. The midfield had Rice – a Conference League player with West Ham, and a front three including Saka, who has never played in Europe’s elite competition.
Look at Morocco. Look at Croatia. Achraf Hakimi, Noussair Mazraoui, Bono, Hakim Ziyech, Youssef En-Nesyri, Nayef Aguerd, Sofyan Amrabat, all have Champions League experience. Croatia of course have Luka Modric (a player better than any England star of the 2010s), Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and more. The whole starting XI that beat Brazil in the quarter-finals has UCL experience, as did four of their five substitutes in that game.
Even if it is for Dinamo Zagreb or Feyenoord, with all due respect, that experience matters when it comes to major international tournaments. England do not have a lot of players ripping it up in the Champions League or winning trophies domestically. Manchester City have dominated English football for five years and have Stones, Kyle Walker, Foden and Jack Grealish to offer the England manager. Stones and Walker are undisputed starters for their country, Foden should probably be utilised as a No. 10 going forward and Grealish is someone who frequently comes off the bench. And yes, we remembered Kalvin Phillips but he is contributing little to City or England this season.
The only team to come close to toppling City are Liverpool, who have Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold in the current set-up, with Harvey Elliott likely to follow.
People think this England squad should be winning trophies. People think Southgate is holding them back. People crucify Southgate for not playing James Maddison at the World Cup. There will always be criticism and international football is brutal at the best of times. As soon as a team is eliminated from the World Cup, questions are asked about the manager and England are no different.
Thomas Tuchel is a no-brainer according to many, and would be an upgrade on Southgate given his track record. But it isn’t as if he will play less cautiously than the current England manager, who is frequently (and often wrongly) condemned for being too negative.
The grass is not always greener, and while an elite coach could guide this England team to glory, this is not a collection of world-class players. Assuming England can succeed at the Euros in a year-and-a-half is bizarre. Fans, pundits and the media need to realise that Southgate has done one hell of a job with a decent squad. If he goes, he should go with your thanks and not your blame.