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Soccer

Will England Ever Be Brave Enough To Reach For Greatness?

Jude Bellingham
Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2022 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our World Cup previews here.


The history of the England men’s national team is one of disappointment. Ever since winning the World Cup in 1966, various generations, some more golden than others, have come and gone. None have been able to claim a meaningful international title, instead leaving in their wake a collection of memorable and heartbreaking losses. You know all this. You’ve heard the laundry list of failures every time England prepares to enter a big international tournament.

Back in 2018, the cycle began anew. That’s when England, coming off a humiliating exit from the 2016 Euros, went into the World Cup with a refreshed squad stacked with young and talented players, many of whom were not only playing at a high level for some of the best teams in the Premier League, but doing so under the tutelage of some of the best managers in the world. Gareth Southgate be damned—put a bunch of guys who spent their time winning trophies and learning the game from Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, and Mauricio Pochettino on one team and you’re all but assured to see some electric, winning soccer. That’s what I told myself, anyway.

It hasn’t really worked out like that. England plodded their way to the semifinal game in the 2018 World Cup, only to muster just two shots on target in a 2–1 loss to Croatia. They got even further at the 2020 Euros, making it all the way to the final against Italy, where they farted the ball around for 120 minutes (six total shots, two on target) before losing the game on penalties.

Any national team should be thrilled to have made it to the Euro final and World Cup semifinal in one cycle, but no amount of objective analysis can wash the stink of disappointment from this current era of Three Lions soccer. It’s not just that this team hasn’t quite gotten over the line and raised a trophy, it’s that they’ve been boring as hell to watch while also coming up just short.

The 2022 World Cup offers this iteration of the team its best and last chance to set all that right. They need to win the whole thing, yes, but they also need to prove that they can actually play some damn soccer worth watching.

Who Is Their Main Guy?

Harry Kane is their main guy. There are many ways to explain the importance of Kane’s presence in this squad, but we’ll start with the simplest: He does everything. Maybe there are strikers out there in the world who are better at finishing, linking up play, holding up long balls, or running in behind the defense. But there is no striker in the world besides Kane who does all of those things, all at once, at such a consistently high level.

Kane’s one of those rare strikers who is just as relied upon for initiating scoring chances as he is for finishing them. Though he’s exceptionally good at scoring with either foot and latching that big head of his onto crosses, where he really shines is in the moments when he drops deeper into the midfield and makes himself an option for his teammates who are looking for a way to break through the opposition press. While most strikers with Kane’s size and physical abilities make their livings staying as high up the pitch as possible, keeping the opponent’s back line pinned in place, Kane loves nothing more than to gallop towards his own goal, receive the ball at about the halfway line, and then immediately fire off a pass that negates the defense and creates a goal-scoring opportunity. He’s pulled this trick dozens upon dozens of times during his tenure at Tottenham, but none looked prettier than this version, from last season’s 3–2 win against Manchester City:

Kane’s versatility means he’s central to everything England tries to do, and you can see his importance just in the way Gareth Southgate constructs and aligns the squad. If you ever find yourself looking at an England starting XI and wondering where the creativity in midfield is supposed to come from, the answer is Harry Kane. If you are asking where the goals are supposed to come from, the answer is Harry Kane. If you are looking for the guy on the field who is supposed to provide consistent service into the box, that guy is also Harry Kane.

I’m overstating things a little, but this is a team that is almost entirely built to function around Kane’s vast skillset. There’s nothing wrong with orientating everything around your best guy, but you can see where England might run into some problems if Kane gets hurt, or is even just off his game for a few weeks. If everything goes right for England in Qatar, there’s a high possibility that you will see Kane raising the World Cup trophy in front of his adoring teammates. If you ever see Callum Wilson on the field, though, it will probably mean that things are going very wrong.

Who Is Their Main Non-Scoring Guy?

Declan Rice is a quintessential main non-scoring guy, in that he is a midfielder who will finish a league season with one goal and three assists, and then you will spend the whole summer hearing about how he’s nearing a £50 million transfer to some big club because he’s “pure class in the middle of the park.” As a soccer-watching novice, these types of players used to frustrate me a great deal, because even after watching a game in which they featured for 90 minutes, I had trouble figuring out what all the fuss was about. He didn’t even kick the ball at the net! What’s so great about him?

The truth is that Rice really is pure class in the middle of the park. Not because he’s likely to curl one into the top corner from 25 yards out, or use the outside of his foot to scythe a through ball between four defenders and into the path of a sprinting forward, but because he’s never going to fuck anything up. Rice is the type of midfielder who is always in the perfect position to receive the ball from his defenders and then quickly carry it forward or move it along to wherever it needs to go next. If the other team is building an attack, either on the counter or through a series of intricate passes, he’s the most likely to throw a long leg into the gears at precisely the right moment and break things up. If his forwards and fullbacks are cycling the ball around the final third but starting to run out of ideas, he’s always available just outside the box to receive a pass and get things restarted.

If the actions I’m describing sound kind of boring when compared to some of the other stuff that happens on a soccer field, well, that’s because they are. But don’t mistake the things that Rice excels at as being simpler or less important than the things that, say, Kevin De Bruyne excels at. In this current era of soccer, where so many teams are either built to relentlessly press their opponents from the front or absorb attacks and then launch ruthless counters, being a deep-lying central midfielder is absolute hell. Rice might wake up one day and have to deal with Liverpool’s ferocious pack of hunters bearing down on him every single time he receives a pass, and then the next week he has to figure out how to cut out a pass aimed at Son Heung-min sprinting into acres of space. It’s so easy to fuck up in these scenarios, and that’s something that the best teams in the world depend on in order to produce goals. Rice can stop those teams in their tracks by simply refusing to crack under the various types of pressure they apply. It’s not a fun job, but the guys who can do it at such a high level are indispensable.

Where’s The Beef?

Which teams or players does England not like? Do England’s players like each other? We investigate England’s potential enemies.

I’ll tell you who has beef with this England team: Me!!!

Some of my favorite players in the entire world are on this team. I have woken up at the crack of dawn just to see at least one of Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Trent Alexander-Arnold, or Mason Mount play for their club teams. Seeing them all on the field together, playing for the same team, should be a blessing. And yet all this damn team has done for the past few years is bore me to death. Instead of getting to watch these undeniably talented and dynamic players link up and use their individual skills to create something new and beautiful, I’ve watched them play an increasingly staid and boring style. Gareth Southgate has more talent on hand than the manager of any other national team, and yet his overarching plan seems to be playing safe, slow soccer while waiting for Kieran Trippier to knock in a free-kick cross that delivers a 1–0 victory.

I understand that this is a common problem with national teams. I do not need it explained to me that these teams rarely ever add up to the sum of their parts, nor do I need anyone telling me that playing a more conservative style tends to lead to deeper runs into tournaments, where randomness is a far more determinative factor than it is over the course of a domestic season. I acknowledge each and every one of these realities, and yet I stand here in defiance and I say to hell with all of that!

England never shuts the hell up about how it is the birthplace of soccer. A whole nation of ruddy blokes crying out, “It’s coming home!” as they dump beer all over themselves. A vast and ever-expanding class of pompous former players and managers who walk around like self-styled dignitaries because they once wore a Manchester United or Liverpool shirt. A league that rightfully calls itself the best in the world while pretending that descriptor is earned entirely through some deeper spiritual connection to the game itself and not through the legacy of colonialism and a concentration wealth. If England wants to talk a big game and sing its stupid little song and demand that it be recognized as the true home of the sport every time an international tournament rolls around, well then it is my opinion that they should to put some effort into actually earning that high status on the field.

I don’t know who first called soccer the beautiful game, but I doubt the words came to them after watching a cagey team tiptoe its way to a 1–0 victory and then raise a trophy. Southgate has been in charge of this team since 2016, and he’s had a steady group of players to work with through multiple qualification and tournament cycles. He knows how good these guys are, the players know how good they are, and everyone knows what kind of soccer they are capable of playing. And yet all anyone involved in this program seems interested in doing is tiptoeing. It’s gotten them pretty far in the recent past, and it might even get them that elusive trophy this year. But it won’t make them what they could be, if they really went for it: a team worth getting up at the crack of dawn to watch.

Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode

Who is England’s best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia’s James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia’s David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?

Jude Bellingham is not only an absolute lock to go James Rodríguez Mode at the conclusion of this tournament, he is also the player most likely to save England from itself. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 19-year-old midfielder who only has 2.5 professional seasons at Borussia Dortmund under his belt, but the makeup of the England squad and the skillset that Bellingham brings to it has him set up perfectly to take the whole tournament into his own hands.

Bellingham can do everything in the midfield. All those nice things I said about Declan Rice? Bellingham can match him in all those areas while also providing much more creativity and playmaking going forward. He can do all the hard work of winning duels and dribbling out of tight spaces when operating in his own half, and then when he gets the ball at his feet in the opponent’s half, he excels at all the fun stuff: sliding through balls into the box for his forwards, playing intricate one-twos that open up goal-scoring chances, and putting the ball into the net himself when he needs to.

There is no other midfielder on the England squad that can do what Bellingham does. Guys like Mason Mount, James Maddison, and Eberechi Eze (in the unlikely event that he gets a call up) can provide plenty of creativity, but they lack the all-action game that Bellingham possesses. Southgate would maybe prefer to have a more experienced player partnered with Rice in central midfield, but Bellingham is just too good to leave out of the side. He should be starting every game, which is good news for those of use who are hoping to see a little more life out of this England squad. If anyone can bring a new dimension to the side, and break it out of the Kane-centric system that has only become more stale with time, it’s Bellingham.

Unless Bellingham has an absolute nightmare of a World Cup and, like, kicks the ball into his own goal from 25 yards out in the final, he’ll be making a move to one of the biggest teams in the world next summer. The only question right now is whether he’ll be going to Chelsea for £100 million or Real Madrid for £140 million.

David Ospina Mode Probability Score: 2.9

James Rodríguez Mode Probability Score: 127.9

Fun Geographical Fact

Lol.

???

Good Flag Or Bad Flag?

Boring!

Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?

I agree with Limmy.

Notable Moment In World Cup History

I realize that I’ve been fairly negative about a team that has had recent and meaningful international success and has as good a shot as anyone at winning the World Cup this year, so I will not pour it on here by embedding a clip of Rob Green’s fumble from the 2010 World Cup. Instead, I’ll remind everyone of the penalty shootout against Colombia in 2018, which sent England to the semifinal.

Good job, lads.

How Can They Win The World Cup?

They can win the World Cup by playing some goddamn soccer!

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