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Guide to World Cup Group G: Group of…England

England Who are they? Here we go then. There are thousands of words already written previewing England’s potential performance at this World Cup. Some are positive, some are negative, some are in between with a healthy dose of either cynicism or optimism depending on your personal bias. Whatever your viewpoint you are well covered somewhere on TV, radio, in the papers or on a podcast. If you have given up on the England team, this World Cup won’t change anything for you. If you are completely apathetic about them, this World Cup won’t change anything for you. If you see progress and longer-term hope, this World Cup won’t change anything for you. England are over, boring, or just at the start of their journey depending on your outlook. In short, this World Cup doesn’t matter. That doesn’t make it a free pass, but exceeding expectations will hammer home mistakes of the past, while falling below them just proves how far we have to go. For what it’s worth, I choose to be positive. I also choose to believe the togetherness line every player has been so keen to promote on media duty. An England squad without cliques and bonded by the woeful treatment of Raheem Sterling by some members of the press – that itself feels like progress. Add to that a still relatively new system – a five at the back that both protects and platforms others – and new faces in a squad we saw filled with old for tournament after tournament, and if nothing else no-one could argue that things don’t feel different. Southgate has changed the system, changed the thinking, and seemingly changed the dynamic. The England players have responded with some very encouraging performances over the last 12 months and in particular whilst warming up for this World Cup. England are changing. It’s up to you whether you’re for, against, or just not going to take any notice. Manager – Gareth Southgate There is no point trying to sell Southgate to those who will never believe, but he is at least trying to put longer-term planning in place. A willingness to look at tactical flexibility with an emphasis on encouraging ball retention isn’t sexy, but it isn’t Big Sam asking his defenders to hit Wazza’s run up top either. England’s massive success at various youth levels has been covered elsewhere and is more than admirable. Southgate is aware it must be nurtured and is trying to turn a place in the England team from a millstone to a milestone. Up against the world’s best there is little doubt that he has a long way to go. But what Southgate has shown so far is a willingness to learn and adapt. This summer will tell him a huge amount about the spine of the team he wants to take forward for what he hopes will be the next four to six years, supplementing it with the Fodens and Sanchos as they earn their places. Barring an absolute disaster of Iceland-sized proportions, Southgate is the FA’s man for at least the next two years and he has already crafted a largely likeable team who play intelligent football. Where might he eventually take them? This summer is too early to tell. But England are finally interesting again and so far, Gareth, that’s enough. Key Man – Dele Alli Harry Kane has to score more and improve his tournament football, Raheem Sterling needs to bring everything Pep Guardiola gives him in a Manchester City shirt to an England one, Eric Dier and/or Jordan Henderson have to prove all our central midfield worries were unfounded. There are several others in this England team who need to do more of everything. But fundamentally we have to create more chances, and much of that is going to fall on Alli’s shoulders, particularly playing close to Kane and with a lightning quick Sterling and Jesse Lingard either side. Alli will need to be both playmaker and goal threat, link-up man and poacher. His season was average with high spots, his England form similar. With Lingard as a genuine alternative and Rashford out wide Alli needs to feel his England place isn’t safe and really kick on. He also has to avoid the yellow cards World Cup referees dish out so willingly. A lot of pressure on 22-year-old shoulders but his immense talent warrants it. What should we expect? Those who want to will find something to dislike, those who want to will find something to love – the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. It’s vital that it still feels like England are on a journey to something more at the end of this World Cup. A quarter-final is within reach, and we’d all take valiant defeat at that stage if offered, wouldn’t we?   Panama Who are they? Sometimes just being at a World Cup is enough. Panama have been building to this for years with a core of players who are now in the their late 20s or 30s and have given everything. They are too static to trouble anyone in this group, they have too many players for whom three games in 11 days is a challenge and they will be restricted from playing their combative style by overzealous referees. But all that doesn’t really matter. Panama are at the World Cup and playing on the same level as 31 others. No wonder president Juan Carlos Varela declared a national holiday the day after qualifying. If they do earn a win somewhere he may have to give everyone the week off. Qualifying was a huge achievement after coming so close four years ago. Being able to gather the same group of players together and get even more from them is phenomenal. The USA just needed to win at bottom-of-the-group Trinidad and Tobago to qualify, Panama had to beat Costa Rica and hope for a miracle. An 88th-minute Roman Torres goal put them 2-1 ahead as the USA fell to a 2-1 defeat. Madness followed, commentary clips retweeted a million times and limbs everywhere. Pure footballing bliss. We get so little of that these days. So Panama’s time at the World Cup matters far less than the manner in which they got here and the inspiration they have given future generations. Torres himself became a hero that night, but it’s worth also saying he’s a very competent central defender who had been pushed up to look for that winning goal. He’ll captain a squad of whom over half have 50...


Published By: Fottball 365 - Tuesday, 12 June

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