My FIFA World Cup memories are similar to those family gatherings that happen once every few years. You remember you had the time of your life(or maybe not for some of us) but the rest were all a bit blurry; some familiar faces which had aged a little too much over those years, kids you never knew they existed literally kicking your ass on the very first hello and some random middle-aged man from another town who showed up for three minutes and was never seen again. Seven, I was only seven when the mighty Italians fell at the hands of South Korea. 5 World Cups in and boom, I am twenty three! Nevertheless, the evergreen Gigi Buffon would have starred for the Azzuri had they qualified, he played every single minute in 2002 World Cup too.
For 52 years England’s stars had failed. Paul Gascoigne, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and the list goes on and on. Penalty heartbreaks, Ronaldinho’s free kick in Shizuoka that broke David Seaman and the entire nation to tears, Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany before the days of VAR- England seemed to have run out of luck.
The year is 2018 and the fear factor is gone, the golden generation has all retired, the former poster boy, Wayne Rooney, is now packing his bags for retirement across the pond. The current squad does not inspire enthusiasm in even the most optimistic of supporters. Yet, I am probably the only England supporter who is quietly excited ahead of the 4-week-showdown in Russia. Here’s why.
1. Gareth Southgate
We anticipated conservative, dull, no-nonsense football from the former defender yet he demonstrated what is there to be seen in Russia during the pre-world cup warm up games. He utilised the back three with Man City wingback Kyle Walker tucked in as a right-sided centre back a la Cesar Azpilicueta. He could have taken the easy route picking the most experienced players yet he left Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere at home gambling with a goalkeeping trio that had a combined 9 England caps as well as Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who enjoyed a great run out against the world champions.
With inexperienced defenders, very attacking-minded fullbacks and a wealth of attacking options, is there a better formation than 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 to get the best out of the team? A back four of Walker, Stones, Jones and Rose (Young) would spell disastrous against a mediocre forward line. Change it up to the back five of Trippier, Walker, Stones, Jones and Young, and you could see the difference even on paper. Southgate has brought only one typical central midfielder (two if you still think Delph is a centre-mid) to Russia in Jordan Henderson who has hit the form just at the right time. Spurs’ Eric Dier will sit alongside him in the engine room allowing Dele Alli, Sterling and Kane or whoever the front three is to focus solely on getting the goals.
3. The forwards
Kane and Vardy alone scored 141 goals between them over the last three Premier League seasons. That supported by a much-improved Raheem Sterling, classy Dele, big game player Jesse Lingard and Danny Welbeck who always enjoys wearing the Three Lions’ shirt, we are guaranteed goals from this team. You also cannot forget the boy-genius Marcus Rashford and his knack for big goals when it matters. If they receive enough supply from the midfield, this frontline can be as good as any team in the competition.
4. Youthful squad
With youngsters Alexander-Arnold, Rashford and Loftus-Cheek as well as the seasoned veteran Harry Kane who is only 24, the current England squad averages the age of 26 years and 18 days. Jamie Vardy (31), Cahill (32) and Young (32) are the only players above the age of 30. One can point out the lack of experience among the camp with only Jordan Henderson,Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck involved in the 2014 World Cup squad. However, the team as well as the manager should use their maiden tournament to gain invaluable experience for the tournaments to come. With the nation’s expectations at the all time low, getting to the quarter finals should be deemed as a success. Any stage further would be a bonus for everyone involved.