Once again, England are heading to the World Cup finals, an honour secured last week after victories over Slovenia and Lithuania.
Despite this, morale and optimism around England seems to be at its lowest point in a long time. Following the disastrous, yet fully deserved loss against Iceland that sent Roy Hodgson packing, England’s national side has lurched from the Sam Allardyce farce to appointing Gareth Southgate who at the time seemed like another puppet for the FA- and most would argue he is yet to prove otherwise.
Squad-wise, English depth is disappointing given the pedigree and standard of the Premier League. Although we boast the goal machine of Harry Kane, whose stellar form for Tottenham Hotspur has seen him handed the captain’s armband for the Lions, the unpredictable dynamism of Marcus Rashford and the recently resurged Raheem Sterling, every other player in the squad seems questionable at best.
Joe Hart, although a decent goalkeeper should be put aside for Jack Butland who has much more potential. Kyle Walker and Ryan Bertrand are solid fullbacks, but hardly carry the glittering shine of Dani Alves and Alex Sandro, like Brazil can boast. No English centre back- Gary Cahill, John Stones, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Michael can hold a candle to the likes of Bonucci, Ramos, Chiellini, Varane if we are honest. Solid defending is a key element of international football, and the constant tinkering has prevented any real partnerships forming. But defence is not where the problem lies.
Looking at the English midfield, a true dearth of talent emerges. Eric Dier is good at his job but not outstanding. Jesse Lingard and Oxlade-Chamberlain can barely break into the starting lineups for their clubs- so the fact they could start suggests a real lack of wide options. Without looking to belittle them, Jordan Henderson and Jake Livermore are nowhere near the standard needed in an international side. It makes it all the more painful that we’ve sunk so far from the puzzle of fitting Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes into the same side, with options like Joe Cole and Gareth Barry waiting to deputise to workhorse midfielders whose best attributes are their running potential. You can maybe afford to field one of them, but they both are not creative enough and stifle attacking play.
With Dele Alli having gone off the boil this season after announcing himself in stunning fashion with a wonderful debut strike against France, it’s particularly disappointing to me that Nathaniel Chalobah has picked up an injury just as he was starting to show the world how good he can be. It’s rare we develop a player with a genuine footballing brain and understanding of the game and arguably he is already an upgrade on Livermore and Henderson as well as being significantly younger. Arguments can also be made for a return to the national fold for Jack Wilshire after he has started to get his Arsenal career back onto track although these games probably come too early for him. England are badly missing someone who could take on a player and pick a pass or a finish in the mould of the currently injured Adam Lallana, whose presence is sorely missed in a squad lacking creativity. It is a shame Crystal Palace have wasted the chances created by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, otherwise he might have had a chance at a first call-up. The likes of Demarai Gray, who are unpredictable if not erratic must also be waiting for their time to come- sooner rather than later.
Now qualifying is complete, the real questions over selection can begin. But even the most optimistic England fan would find it difficult to create a real argument for Gareth Southgate’s side troubling the true top teams of international football next summer. Genuine quality- Brazil, France, Argentina and Spain, tactical nous- Italy, Chile and brutal efficiency- Germany and Portugal are all lacking from the English set-up right now. Although I’m being overly harsh, for me getting out of the group stage at the World Cup would be meeting expectations at the moment. Quarter finals would be a superb achievement. Anything further than that and it’ll be “Arise Sir Gareth” and Harry Kane or Marcus Rashford will genuinely emerge as international world class stars.