Gareth Southgate in an England shirt

England head to the World Cup free of pressure but full of belief

When Gareth Southgate led England to Russia 2018 in his first tournament as manager, there was very little expectation for what they might achieve.

Five and a half years on, the pressure is off for Southgate’s England once more.

They had been underwhelming in 2018 qualifying — and headed into the tournament having failed to win a single knockout match since 2006.

Immediately you’re reminded of why so little was expected of England in Russia. The squad Southgate took was the weakest England have ever taken to a tournament.

England benefited from easy draws, but also played courageous football. They reached the semi-finals, before going one better as finalists at Euro 2020. England’s stock had risen.

They regrouped from Euros penalty heartache to trundle through qualifying with ease, but they arrive in Qatar having lost their way since.

If anything that’s the euphemism of the year — England haven’t won any of their last six matches. Their grim form since March brought the ignominy of relegation to the Nations League’s second tier.

But perhaps that’s fitting. England do feel like a Class B proposition now.

Assertions that Southgate has an endless conveyor belt of talent to select from are inaccurate.

It’s true that they have a cluster of exciting attackers and a surplus of elite-level full-backs.

But besides that, it’s a skeleton squad in which the quality of options has regressed since England’s 2021 summer love-in.

What makes matters worse for Southgate is that in losing Ben Chilwell and Reece James to injury on the eve of this tournament, his full-back options are heavily depleted.

Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw will start. Iran, the US and Wales can do their homework early.

The inclusions of James Maddison and Conor Gallagher may have tempted some to wonder whether Southgate might be about to ditch his pragmatic three-man backline in favour of more expansive football.

He won’t.

Southgate will persist with 3-4-3. Maddison is in on form and Gallagher for his work ethic, flexibility and pressing intensity. They’re fringe selections, not signals of a change in philosophy.

Whether 3-4-3 is the people’s choice or not, England are clear favourites to win Group B.

It is the hardest group according to FIFA rankings, but they have more than enough to win all three games. From there, their potential is tougher to gauge.

The saving grace for England is that nearly all of the major nations have also slumped in recent months. They will fear no one and rightly so, but challenging at the business end of this World Cup seems unlikely.

It will surely be Southgate’s last tournament in charge, and it looks set to taper off into mediocrity. Remember the Sven days? It may be quarters and home again.

Featured image: Кирилл Венедиктов via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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