There is an uncharacteristic air of hope this year surrounding an uncharacteristic England team. To be an England supporter is to inherit a contradictory combination of utter nihilism and raging anger, expecting nothing and everything at the same time. English players have developed an unfortunate reputation: They will wilt under the brightest lights, typified by the inability to hold their nerve during penalty shootouts.
But the perception of mental weakness between generations is, to some extent, a consequence of the spread-out nature of international tournaments. The World Cup is rare and unpredictable: Germany, the defending champion, had just a 13 percent chance of winning in Russia going into the tournament, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, and even Brazil, the favorite, had less than a 20 percent chance.
Using pre-tournament Elo ratings going back to 1930, we can construct a logistic regression to look at how many World Cup trophies each country might have expected based on team strength, the competition format and whether the country was hosting.1
Brazil, Germany and Italy have roughly a pair of trophies each more than the model’s predictions based on their strength before the tournament, which illustrates that the World Cup is hardly a tale of who the favorite is going in.
England has underachieved, winning a solitary trophy relative to 1.62 expected World Cups. By our measure, only Hungary, which was one of the world’s best in the 1950s, and the three-time runner-up Netherlands have seen a bigger discrepancy. English supporters born after 1966 are justified in feeling a tad underwhelmed by the team’s performances on the world stage, but it could be worse — of the underachievers, England is the only team to actually have managed a win at all.
Nonetheless, the team that will face Tunisia on Monday is new and exciting. Gone are the mainstays from the past three World Cups, players like Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Because of the players’ age and inexperience, this team is free of the weight of expectation — despite having the seventh best pre-tournament chance of taking the trophy home, according to FiveThirtyEight predictions. And for the neutral fan, too, England has a lot to offer.
Pep Guardiola — the current manager of Manchester City, which became the first team in history to break the 100-point mark in the Premier League — has had an indirect hand in the past two World Cup-winning teams. In the final against the Netherlands in 2010, eight players featured on the pitch for Spain had been coached by Guardiola in his time at Barcelona. When Mario Götze broke Argentinian hearts in 2014, he was one of seven German players in the final to have played under the Catalan manager that season at Bayern Munich.
This is likely to be less about Guardiola specifically, despite his brilliance, and more about his indirect influence on the tactical coherence of a national team. With him at the helm of the country’s best side, his players would naturally get national team starts; the ability of those players to click when on the pitch together meant that they had more coherent tactics than other teams stacked with good players. Indeed, Italy, which won the 2006 World Cup with a quintessentially Italian style of football, featured a spine of five Juventus players in the final.
With only four Manchester City players on the squad, manager Gareth Southgate will pay homage to Guardiola’s team in style more than in personnel. Man City midfielders David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are playing for Spain and Belgium respectively, but Southgate will try to replicate them by using Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli as “free eights” in the midfield. England has six more players total from Tottenham, managed by Mauricio Pochettino, and Liverpool, managed by Jürgen Klopp. These teams, like City, press the opposition extremely aggressively out of possession, with all three in the top 10 in Europe’s biggest competitions this season in terms of how quickly they shut down their opponents:
|team||league||Avg. Opponent Possession Duration|
|Manchester City||Premier League||6.71 sec.|
|Tottenham Hotspur||Premier League||7.60|
Southgate’s plan seems to be to put the players from these teams into a compatible lineup before re-creating their off-the-ball tactics. As I noted in my Group G preview, of all the teams to qualify for the World Cup, England ranks third in breaking up an opponent’s possession before it completes three passes, behind only Germany and Spain.
England’s famed problem has been getting its generational talents to click together. For once, the big teams in the Premier League are kindred spirits tactically, and this will have an impact on the national team’s ability to leverage the players provided by those clubs.
England is fielding an extremely young side in Russia, with an average age of 26 — only Nigeria is younger. And England’s average of 19 caps per player makes it the most inexperienced side in the competition.2 But while they may be relatively new to the international stage, these youngsters are by no means immature in terms of elite soccer. England’s attack, in particular, is filled to the brim with talent just ready to peak.
|Rank per 90 minutes*|
|Statistic||Harry Kane||Dele Alli||Raheem Sterling|
Tottenham’s Harry Kane, for example, is one of the best goal-scoring strikers in the world at the tender age of 24. Somewhat terrifyingly, he is still improving: He was even better at getting off quality shots this season than he was the year before. The expected goals per 90 minutes from his shots in the Premier League rose from 0.45 in 2016-17 to 0.75 this year.
Dele Alli, 22, will support Kane for their country as he does for their club. His 2017-18 season was marred for some by the idea that it was a regression compared with the year before. What really happened, though, was that he got fewer chances but created more. He also experienced a downturn in chance conversion, from scoring 44 percent more than might be expected based on chance quality in 2016-17 to underachieving it by 12 percent this season. All that made people forget that Alli is one of the brightest under-23 talents in the world. And nobody — apart from maybe Denmark’s Christian Eriksen — is better at supplying Kane.
Man City’s Raheem Sterling may have made recent headlines for getting a rifle tattooed on his leg, but the more important of his designs is the one on his arm of a young boy, wearing England’s No. 10 shirt, looking up at Wembley Stadium, the home of English football. He’s my player to watch for Group G because of his electric ability to both get and create chances, coming off the back of an incredibly productive league season with 18 goals and 11 assists. And he’s only 23.
The biggest problem for England in terms of being a dark horse in Russia is its likely post-group opposition. The English have a good shot of making the quarterfinal (58 percent when the tourney began) but will probably have to face Germany or Brazil at that point, depending on whether England finishes above Belgium in their group. Winning a matchup against one of those powerhouses is a long shot, though anything can happen in a World Cup.
England has an exciting team of young stars, playing at stylistically compatible clubs, and a manager who seems tactically savvy despite his relative inexperience. Even if they don’t manage to bring home the trophy this summer, the future looks bright for The Three Lions for the first time in a generation.
Neil Paine contributed research.
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