It’s time to banish those heady memories of Russia. The waistcoats, the endless renditions of ‘Football’s Coming Home’, the unusual air of optimism.
If England are to improve on their fourth-placed finish at the next World Cup in Qatar, they need to put things in motion now. But what exactly are they?Allow us to explain…
1. Add depth to the squad
England’s first choice starting line-up made it to the semi-finals in Russia, but Gareth Southgate’s second-string team were beaten twice by Belgium.
“When I played for England there was so much depth,” Jamie Carragher tells FourFourTwo. “They called that team the Golden Generation for the number of top players we had. There isn’t as much depth to this squad, but they’ve still performed better than the squads I was in.
“I think we may find younger lads opting to play for a Championship side, knowing they can break through – and this may lead them through the age groups into the England team.”
2. Trust the unlikely leader
Aime Jacquet in 1998, Vicente del Bosque in 2010 and Joachim Löw in 2014 – all World Cup-winning bosses who enjoyed a Southgate-like surge to national prominence (admittedly Del Bosque had won everything with Real Madrid already, but they blatantly thought of him as a sort of quasi-caretaker).
Each of them had at least four years under their belts before lifting the World Cup, having been given time to plan for the long term.
After his previous behind-the-scenes role, Southgate is the ideal figure to lead England’s next project - so it's good news that he recently signed a contract extension taking him through to 2022
3. Send for the wingers
Although speculative punts aren’t the answer – there will undoubtedly be clamour for a more direct style if England’s new style falters – the Three Lions don’t want to become Arsenal. Or Arsene Wenger’s one-trick Gunners, at least.
Three at the back plays to England’s current strengths, but deploying five defenders isn’t necessary when you’re up against minnows only interested in parking the bus.
With Kyle Walker in that three it’s a straightforward switch to a four; you just need a couple of decent wingers to change the attacking shape. Jadon Sancho, anyone?
4. Don’t rely too much on Harry Kane
The Spurs marksman won the Golden Boot, but England need more open play goals from others.
“The beauty of the World Cup was that England were unpredictable, for the first time in a generation,” says Darren Anderton. “Runners from midfield and the goals from set-pieces made England one of the most dangerous sides at the tournament. Harry’s goals topped it all off. The main thing is getting more support from those around him.
“He and Raheem Sterling already have a near-perfect partnership. Raheem needs to add goals to his England game. He was constantly stretching defences in Russia and, despite not scoring, it’s clear how much he’s valued by this side and by Harry in particular. They need to keep playing together as they may end up becoming a lethal combination.”
5. Decode the UEFA Nations League
Let’s be honest, no one looked forward to the international break when it was just meaningless friendlies. We've enjoyed the UEFA Nations League even if the format is staggeringly complex and nobody’s quite certain how it actually works.
Facing top-level opposition – like Spain and World Cup runners-up Croatia – can only be a good thing.
Considering England’s competitive record against the top nations still isn’t brilliant, Nations League results like the superb win in Seville will be helpful as the Three Lions bid to beat the world’s best when Qatar comes around.
6. Worldwide flu treatment for Laurence Maguire
We’re just as superstitious as any player, so what worked in Russia must continue. That means Southgate dislocating his shoulder during every major tournament – it’s for the cause, Gareth – and Harry Maguire’s family attending every game, regardless of whether the giant defender is even playing.
Chesterfield gaffer Martin Allen allowed Maguire’s brother to travel to the World Cup, insisting defender Laurence had Russian flu that could only be treated in the Samara region. Cue the Qatari mumps sometime around 2022.
7. Give World Cup-winning starlets a chance
England won the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups last year, and if the stars of those tournaments are given regular minutes by their clubs to aid their development, the senior squad could benefit hugely leading up to Qatar.
Paul Simpson was in charge of the triumphant England U20 team and is hopeful.
“Over the last nine to 12 months, we’ve seen a lot of the boys getting first-team football,” he explains. “Goalkeeper Freddie Woodman played senior football for Aberdeen, and Jonjoe Kenny made first-team appearances for Everton. It’s important they’re getting these opportunities. We’re starting to see a swing in attitude, which will help in the run-up to the next World Cup.”
8. Don’t be derailed by the press
Without doubt, the tabloids would have gone for the jugular had Colombia triumphed in the last 16 penalty shoot-out.
Raheem Sterling was being groomed as the national scapegoat, but if the Three Lions are going to finally reclaim the biggest prize of all, they’ll need players with his mercurial skill set – even if patience is sometimes required.
Keeping the press onside will help. More NFL-style media days – when every member of the squad was made available to reporters on an afternoon before the World Cup – could boost a crucial relationship. An open approach is building trust on both sides.
9. Continue to eliminate squad rivalries
Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand revealed earlier this year that club rivalries affected England’s Golden Generation. Spain moved beyond enmity between Real Madrid and Barcelona players to hoist the 2010 World Cup, so the English must follow suit.
“I think it’s changed, and for the better,” insists Carragher. “This England squad were like ‘Club England’ – that’s a hard thing to achieve at international level.
“The club mentality is there, thanks to Southgate. He’s been U21 coach and knows a lot of them well. He’s done a great job bonding them together, and I think that’s helped to eliminate those rivalries.”
10. Be patient
The ‘It’s Coming Home’ memes were good fun last summer, and – a rarity among supporters who deal in absolutes – also pleasantly self-aware.
The problem is whether perspective can now be restored. A gradual evolution towards Qatar 2022 was always the FA's plan, but the team delivered ahead of schedule. It’ll be hard not to expect magic from a group that nearly got to a World Cup final – say, when it’s 0-0 midway through the second half against Estonia on a wet night.
As good as they are, this team won’t win every qualifier 7-0. Lack of expectation allowed England to play with boldness in Russia, two years after pressure crippled them at Euro 2016.
11. Gain top-level experience in defence
England boasted some cracking talent at Euro '88: Beardsley, Barnes, Lineker et al. But English clubs were still banned from European competition, and when Marco van Basten took on a raw Tony Adams, it showed.
Three decades later, Mandzukic vs Stones yielded a similar result. None of England’s back three have played regularly at centre-back in the Champions League, but that should have changed by 2022.
12. Don’t do a fly-on-the-wall documentary
England were on a high after getting to the last four at Italia ‘90, but it all fell apart as they failed to qualify four years later, as captured by a Channel 4 documentary.
“I don’t know how they got the approval to produce a fly-on-the-wall documentary about England in the first place,” says former Aston Villa winger Tony Daley, who played for England under Graham Taylor.
“Let’s face it, there’s not a hope in hell of that happening today. It’s all about portraying a positive image in football, but back then it was a real talking point in dressing rooms up and down the country.”
13. Benefit from the Bundesliga
Ademola Lookman and Reece Oxford enjoyed loan spells in Germany last season, Reiss Nelson is impressing on loan at Hoffenheim, and Jadon Sancho’s Borussia Dortmund form earned him a senior England call-up.
“In the past, senior Bundesliga figures told me that trying to bring in young English players was almost impossible, because of the big wages they earned in England and their reluctance to be paid less in Germany,” says ex-England forward Tony Woodcock, who excelled for Cologne during his playing days.
“I think we’re now seeing a growing realisation that first-team football in Germany can open a lot of doors for young English players. Sancho and Lookman have gone there in the last 12 months, and I think we’ll see more and more.”
14. Please gamble responsibly
A Liverpool-inspired ‘Swarm!’ approach yielded a rush of chances in England’s World Cup group games, but that attacking bravado occasionally went missing when the going got tough: late on against Colombia, and in the second half against Croatia.
The confidence to keep pushing players forward is crucial, which might be a job for England’s shrinks. Don’t drop back; gamble on glory.
15. Retain that round thing
Even in the winter Qatar will be warm, so keeping the ball is key. One of England’s major issues is tiring late in tournaments, like teenage vegans at a barbecue. That infamous shortage of knockout goals isn’t just because the opponents get better, it’s because English players are knackered after hours of haplessly chasing shadows.
Southgate’s gamble on less experienced but more technically gifted defenders initially raised some eyebrows; now quickly-frustrated home fans need to give them time to refine their patient, probing approach.
So please, don’t bark at John Stones to hammer it upfield when England are one down. Let the other mob press and wear themselves out.
16. Get the fans on the plane
The pre-tournament vibe this summer was focused on putting England fans off travelling, only for certain media outlets to then complain that not enough supporters bothered turning up: it’s a no-win situation.
Despite all the alarmism, Russia turned out to be a pretty good host. And Qatar? It may not be Ibiza but no doubt their charm offensive will crank up a few notches, too.
England benefit from a large, good-natured fanbase: it’s one big celebratory feedback loop when things are going well. The final in four years’ time is at the brilliantly named Lusail Iconic Stadium – see you all there, then.
17. Keep the inflatable unicorns
Without doubt, the day the England players spent racing on inflatable unicorns in the swimming pool helped them reach the World Cup semi-finals. OK, there was probably more to it than that, but the unicorns pointed to a relaxed atmosphere in the camp.
“To be honest, the blow-up unicorns would probably have been a bit tame for us back then,” laughs Euro '96 star Anderton.
“Times change – I can’t imagine these boys embracing the dentist chair! Personally, I think the way the team has bonded has been the most impressive thing Southgate has achieved. If that carries on, why can’t we go and win it in 2022? The unicorn thing showed these boys actually got on really well and genuinely liked each other.”
18. Surround England’s young talent with the right people
One thing that stood out during the World Cup was just how likeable this England team is.
In previous incarnations, fans of rival teams might have felt vaguely sick at the thought of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand or whichever other figure they loathed lifting the World Cup trophy – but that feeling is largely gone thanks to a set of players you’d happily introduce to your gran.
Southgate’s gentlemanly conduct has contributed to that, as has an academy system that places importance on producing more rounded human beings. Those players must now be encircled by people giving them the right advice to keep them grounded.
19. Find a playmaker
Watching timeless man-witch Luka Modric run rings around the England midfield was a sobering comedown from all the pre-semi hoopla, but perhaps we should’ve seen it coming.
Southgate’s side lacks the same sort of midfield playmaker: Jordan Henderson has the will but not the skill, while Jack Wilshere appeared nailed-on but fell out of the equation.
The boss isn’t afraid of blooding raw youth: maybe it’s time to give the promising Phil Foden – or Harry Winks - regular game time?
20. Win the club vs country battle
The FA’s review into the national team’s previous failures reached a clear conclusion: while nations like France allowed players to progress through the age groups – with very obvious results – club vs country concerns were hampering England.
Southgate’s commitment to a similar system has paid partial dividends, but the conveyor belt can’t stop, with players like Foden, Sancho and Ryan Sessegnon denied clearance to play at the Under-19 Euros recently.
“It’s massively important that we keep seeing our best young players performing in international age group football,” says Paul Simpson. “But we also need UEFA to be sensible when they’re scheduling tournaments. We had 33 players withdraw from the U19 European Championship but it wasn’t just England – it was countries across the board.”
21. Don’t worry if qualifying doesn’t go smoothly
We aren’t expecting things to start going Graham Taylor or Steve McClaren levels of awful, but England need to actually qualify for Qatar first.
However, no one needs to panic if things aren’t plain sailing when the qualification process gets underway. Germany were dominant en route to Russia 2018, winning all 10 games, but were back home before das postcards.
France drew 0-0 at home to Luxembourg but went on to win it.
22. Avoid burnout
Fatigue has long been an issue at major tournaments, and 2022 could be even more challenging, taking place in the middle of a hectic Premier League season. The squad will need time to rest before it kicks off.
“The lead up to Qatar 2022 does look difficult,” says Carragher. “There were a few times in my career when fixtures piled up and it was tough – it can burn players out. It’s harder for the offensive players, who rely on sharpness more than defenders, but it takes its toll physically.
“It’s also hard mentally as you have to get yourself up for a match, and then you have the comedown afterwards. Pre-season tours are something that might have to be looked at, as they add a lot to players’ schedules.”
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