A musical history
The wistful tone of the song is such that had you told Baddiel, Skinner, and The Lightning Seeds when they penned the 1996 English Football anthem, Three Lions, that the fortunes of the national team would follow a similar pattern over the following 26 years, they would not have been surprised. After all, “everyone seems to know the score”.
To the “so many jokes, so many sneers” of the song, we have since added David Beckham ruefully looking down at a sandy penalty spot after his spot-kick kept rising in Euro 2004. Four years after Gary Neville’s back pass bobbled over Paul Robinson’s foot against Croatia — at just the moment an advert for satirical comedy, Borat, became visible in the background, — Rob Green, allowed the ball to slip through his fingers against the US, in 2010. Then there was the loss to a country with more active volcanoes than professional Footballers, when succumbing to Iceland in Euro 2016. Players seeing red, and seeing their penalties saved.
Heartaches and heartbreaks
There have also been plenty of additions to the list of “all those oh-so-nears”. Gazza was a bootlace from putting England, rather than Germany, into the Euro ’96 Final. Twice Sol Campbell thought he had headed England into the next round of a major tournament. Twice the referees disagreed. England made three consecutive major championship quarter-finals, and led against Brazil in 2002, and against Portugal in 2004. Then there was Frank Lampard’s “goal” against Germany in 2010, which predated — and hastened — goal-line technology. Fake Sheikhs, Metatarsal breaks, and heartaches.
Never were England oh-so-nearer to ending their 56 years of hurt than during last summer’s excellent showing in the European Championships. Having vanquished their old nemesis, Germany, along the way, England led until the 67th minute of the Final, against Italy. After Leonardo Bonucci’s equaliser, the European Championship trophy was always likely to be coming to Rome, rather than coming home. To borrow from the follow-up Three Lions ‘98: “It was nearly complete, it was nearly so sweet.”
Continuing the musical theme, recalling the 26 years since Three Lions first charted, rarely was a theme tune more fitting than when ITV chose The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony to accompany their coverage of England matches.
The Southgate Years
The last six years of the symphony have been conducted by Gareth Southgate. After a prolonged honeymoon period as England Manager, Southgate has discovered what all his predecessors learned, that into each England coach’s life a little rain must fall. In the case of Kevin Keegan and Steve McClaren, it was literal and metaphorical. Keegan had arrived on a wave of public support, but his team was washed away on a damp afternoon in the last game at the old Wembley, against Germany, with Keegan resigning immediately after the final whistle. McClaren was dubbed “A Wally With A Brolly” after England’s loss to Croatia on a sodden Wembley evening, in 2007, ended hopes of qualifying for the following summer’s Euros. Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor faced the worst of the tabloid wrath. Even World Cup winner, Sir Alf Ramsey, couldn’t survive failures in the following decade.
Signs of hope
Despite recent reversals, the outlook has been much brighter under Southgate. After leading the Three Lions to a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years, he went one better at Euro 2020. A record of eight wins and two draws in World Cup qualification is hard to fault and would have been better but for conceding a 92nd-minute equaliser in Poland. England fended off principal rivals Poland, Albania, and Hungary, with the Poles franking the form by reaching the finals through one of UEFA’s qualification pathways. The Three Lions were Europe’s top goalscorers in qualifying, netting 39 goals in ten matches, though 24 came at the expense of minnows Andorra and San Marino.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of a winter World Cup, England must be relieved that the tournament didn’t take place in its rightful summer spot, given that their Nations League matches in June, produced two draws and two defeats. Of course, that competition lacks the World Cup’s gravitas, but such dire performances hardly suggest England would have fared well.
Another subsequent loss, to Italy, confirmed England’s relegation from League A, followed by a 3-3 draw with Germany. A consequence of England’s recent downturn in form is that their next Nations League group could feature the likes of Kazakhstan, Georgia, or Albania. Their Nations League campaign provided more questions than answers as to Southgate’s best team, what formation he should set them out in, and who might fill out England’s 26-man squad, in Qatar.
England’s World Cup Squad
There are few names that you could confidently ink into England’s starting line-up. Captain Harry Kane will start up front, and Raheem Sterling — England’s Player of the Tournament at the Euros — remains likely to fill one of the wide berths alongside him. Beyond that, there are few certainties. Declan Rice is the clear front-runner for the holding midfield role, while Jordan Pickford has long been Southgate’s preferred goalkeeping option, and Nick Pope’s mistake, which allowed Germany to earn a draw at Wembley, may have cemented Pickford’s position as England’s number one. Although making saves is a ‘keeper’s bread and butter, Southgate is enamoured with Pickford’s ability with his feet, when England look to play out from the back.
Formation, formation, formation?
Many of the other selections depend on the England coach’s formation. England enjoyed success with a 3-5-2 system at the last World Cup but saw Spain ruthlessly expose the yawning gaps behind England’s wing-backs, in a Nations League game at Wembley, causing Southgate to rethink things. After opening their World Cup qualifiers with a 4-2-3-1 formation, England used a 4-3-3 system in five of their next seven qualifiers, with 4-2-3-1 utilised in their emphatic win in Hungary, and during the draw in Poland. Southgate has opted for a 3-4-3 system in three of England’s last four games but reverted to a 4-2-3-1 set-up in defeat to Italy.
Is this admirable tactical flexibility or dangerous indecision? Arguably, England could use one formation during the Group Stage, and another in the knockout phase. They would expect to progress from a section containing Iran, the United States, and Wales, where they might need a system to break down obdurate defences, in games where the Three Lions can expect to have the lion’s share of possession. Things could be very different in the later rounds against the likes of France, when more defensive solidity might be required.
Do England players possess such tactical flexibility? Well, sometimes a late change of formation can work wonders. In Italia ’90, England players beseeched Bobby Robson to switch to a sweeper system and the move revived the Three Lions’ tournament, resulting in a run to the semi-finals. So maybe English players have more tactical flexibility than they are given credit for.
Of the ‘Big Six’ Premier League clubs, from which most of the squad will be drawn, four regularly play with a back four. Chelsea also began with four at the back in Graham Potter’s first game in charge, but recently he has reverted to the back three used during his Brighton days, which is also Tottenham’s preferred system. It may be premature to add the new money of Newcastle into the mix, but Eddie Howe also prefers a back four.
Wing-backs, yes or no?
That said, with Eric Dier recently back in the fold, and part of a back three at Spurs, with Harry Maguire, John Stones, and Kyle Walker — England’s three at the back in Russia — all still in contention for places, and with England possessing a raft of players who are effective in the wing-back roles, it may be that 3-4-3 wins out. It is worth remembering that England started the Euro 2020 Final with three at the back, and the goal that so nearly clinched England’s first major title in over half a century was fashioned by wing-backs, with Kieran Trippier’s cross from the right being met by his compatriot on the left flank, Luke Shaw.
Who else apart from Kane?
Question marks remain, whichever formation Southgate chooses. The team’s reliance on one source of goals is clear. Harry Kane — just two goals away from equalling Wayne Rooney’s England goalscoring record — has scored 51 times for his country, the rest of the squad for September’s Nations League games had 59 goals between them. If Raheem Sterling’s tally of 19 is removed — and with Marcus Rashford far from certain to be included in the squad — their next most prolific scorer is defender, Harry Maguire.
At the other end, a flat back four has seen England look vulnerable defensively. Three centre-backs in front of Pickford, two wing-backs, and a holding midfielder leaves room for only four attacking players from the hoards that England possesses. Two, rather than three, in the centre of the park and England have found themselves outnumbered by teams with an extra man in midfield.
Nevertheless, there are numerous reasons for optimism. England possesses a world-class number nine, and three of their number made UEFA’s Euro 2020 team of the tournament. England has performed above expectations in both of their last two major tournaments and the promising group of young players who delivered a historic haul of three major trophies, in 2017, from Under-17s through to Under-20s, should be close to their peak.
No major surprises
When it came to the England squad announcement, perhaps the only surprise was that there were no major surprises. There were no shock exclusions of the type that caused Paul Gascoigne to, in Glenn Hoddle’s words, start acting “like a man possessed,” in 1998. No unexpected bolter like the then seventeen-year-old Theo Walcott making the 2006 squad, despite not having played a minute of Premier League Football.
The biggest talking point as the clock ticked down to the announcement was whether James Maddison’s fine run of current form — with 22 goal involvements in 2022 — would earn him a seat on the plane to Qatar. The selection of The Foxes’ playmaker was the closest thing we got to a surprise.
The balance of the squad is much as expected, with nine defenders, six midfielders, and eight forwards.
Goalkeepers and Back Line
You didn’t have to be Cervantes to predict that England’s three goalkeepers would be Messrs Pickford, Ramsdale, and Pope.
With Reece James ruled out, and Kyle Walker selected but coming back from a layoff, the question of whether Trent Alexander-Arnold would have been included with everyone available became academic. Ben White’s ability to cover both right-back and centre-back may have clinched his place. Rumours in the weeks before the announcement suggested that Tyrone Mings and Fikayo Tomori would miss out, and that was the case. An injury to Ben Chilwell, likely secures the number three shirt for Luke Shaw, with Kieran Trippier’s ability to provide cover for that position as well as his regular right-back role, making the inclusion of another specialist left-back unnecessary in Southgate’s eyes.
Conor Coady, Harry Maguire, and John Stones round out the defensive inclusions, along with Eric Dier, who provides extra backup for the holding midfield role.
Likely Midfielders and Forwards
On paper, six doesn’t sound like a lot of midfielders, but some of those classified as forwards can fulfil deeper roles if required. Declan Rice was a certainty to be included. Less sure was Kalvin Phillips, with only 54 minutes of Football under his belt between the middle of June and the squad announcement. His selection has given Southgate the option to reprise the duo’s central midfield partnership from the Euros. Rice’s childhood friend, Mason Mount, is included, as expected, though Mount’s Chelsea teammate Conor Gallagher, was a more borderline pick, at the expense of dead-ball specialist, James Ward-Prowse. Jude Bellingham’s impressive recent international outings, including a man-of-the-match performance in England’s last game, against Germany, made his inclusion no surprise, and Jordan Henderson completes England’s midfield group.
Harry Kane, Raheen Sterling, and Phil Foden were all names that could have been confidently inked in some time ago, while it would have been a surprise if Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish hadn’t made it. Marcus Rashford’s ability to play out wide or through the middle was always likely to give him the edge over his rivals. Callum Wilson’s strong run of form sees him edge out Tammy Abraham and Ivan Toney as Kane’s other understudy. While Maddison is in, Jadon Sancho, who made a substitute appearance in the Euro 2020 Final, misses out.
When England’s squad finally assembles at St George’s Park, they will prepare for what looks at first glance to be a straightforward group. As one of eight seeded teams, they were exempt from facing many of the world’s Footballing superpowers in the Group Stage. April’s draw pitted them against the United States, Wales, and Iran.
While such opposition might not look very taxing, it’s worth remembering the 2010 tournament. Then, The Sun summed up the press’ view of England’s World Cup group with their headline using the initials of the teams in that section: England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks, spells EASY — proclaiming this to be the: “best English group since the Beatles.” Group C turned out to be more like the Fab Four’s A Hard Day’s Night. Rob Green’s aforementioned slip meant the Three Lions were held to a draw by the US. Failure to break down Algeria in their next match meant England needed to beat Slovenia to save their blushes, a feat achieved thanks to Jermaine Defoe’s winner. Even then, a stoppage-time goal from Landon Donovan meant it was the United States, rather than England, who topped the group, leaving the Three Lions on a collision course with Germany, who sent England home.
Odds of 1/3 for England to win the group confirm the 2022 draw could have been worse. But an examination of the world rankings suggests they can’t afford to be complacent. With England ranked 5th, the latest update from FIFA, had the US 16th, Wales 19th, and Iran 20th.
Wales & England drawn together
Traditionally, familiarity is a great leveller in major Football tournaments, and Wales will be hoping that will continue when they face England on 29th November. At Euro 2016, Wales was only denied a point against their rivals from across the Severn Bridge in injury time, and Scotland was the only team to take a point off England in the Group Stage of last summer’s Euros. The best example of the familiarity effect occurred when a Senegal team rudely dubbed “France B” stunned reigning World and European champions, France, in 2002.
Although cheering for the old enemy would go against the grain, Wales might benefit should England start the tournament with two wins. In that event, with the game between the home nations taking place last, The Dragons could face a much-altered England line-up — after victories in their first two matches in 2018, Southgate made eight changes for England’s last group game.
So, Wales won’t fear England. A draw against Belgium in their final qualification group game saw The Dragons advance to the playoffs. After defeating Austria, Wales brought an end to Ukraine’s emotional qualification bid. After a 64-year absence, Wales is back in the World Cup. Their three goals in those two games all came from a familiar source: Gareth Bale. Currently, a Los Angeles FC player, Bale has 40 international goals. The remainder of their most recent Nations League squad has 25 between them.
Tottenham centre-back Ben Davies and former Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey provide additional quality, but if Wales are to recapture the magic which saw them eliminate Belgium at Euro 2016, they are likely to need a bailout from Gareth.
England’s Footballing history against the US is certain to be trotted out in the build-up to their second group match. In 1950, a US team of amateurs pulled off the “Miracle on Green,” beating an England side then dubbed the “Kings of Football” in a historic upset. The Americans’ progression in the years since made it much less surprising when the Stars and Stripes held the mother country to a draw, in 2010. In between, a 2-0 win for the US in the warm-up event for the 1994 World Cup, made Graham Taylor’s men the subject of the “Yanks 2 Planks 0” headline.
England has won the remaining eight fixtures against the US, most recently in a facile 3-0 win at Wembley in 2018. From 1990 to 2014 the Stars and Stripes were regulars at Football’s top table, making the most of what was then a straightforward CONCACAF qualification path to secure a place at seven consecutive World Cup tournaments. Failure to reach Russia 2018, led to a major rethink, with many senior names jettisoned from their squad in favour of younger players, as they build towards co-hosting the 2026 renewal.
Consequently, Chelsea’s 24-year-old Christian Pulisic is now one of only three US players from their most recent squad to have reached 50 caps. Pulisic got the first of their two goals in a home win over Mexico, but despite an unbeaten home record in qualification, poor away form left the US scrambling to grab the final automatic place on goal difference, three points behind both Canada and Mexico.
Iran’s victory over the USA in the 1998 World Cup remains arguably their proudest Footballing moment. While the US has previous experience in facing the Iranian Cheetahs, England’s opening game of the tournament will be their first-ever meeting with the Middle East nation. For the third consecutive World Cup, former Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz will lead Iran. He was controversially parachuted in to replace Dragan Skočić, who’d steered them to a first-place finish in AFC Group A. Iran finished two points ahead of fellow-automatic qualifiers South Korea, despite losing in Seoul.
Four years ago, Iran pushed Iberian rivals Spain and Portugal all the way, thanks to late goals. A 95th-minute goal saw off Morocco and, after a narrow loss to Spain, Queiroz secured a point against his fellow countrymen from Portugal with a 93rd-minute equaliser.
As in Russia, Sardar Azmoun, of Bayer Leverkusen, is touted as their star man. His goal earned a highly creditable recent draw with African champions, Senegal, a result, along with a win over Uruguay, four days earlier, that confirms Iran shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Looking ahead to the Round of 16
Nevertheless, the group is such that England should avoid being “home before the postcards”, though finishing top would probably improve their prospects by making Senegal, rather than the Netherlands, their likely last-16 opponent. World Cup quarter-finalists in 2002, Senegal twice denied Egypt on penalties this year, firstly in the Africa Cup Of Nations Final and then in the final round of World Cup qualifiers. The Lions of Teranga have many familiar faces, with the squad assembled for recent Friendlies containing ten players based in England. Star man Sadio Mané swapped Liverpool for Bayern Munich over the summer, though Mané has joined the list of players missing the tournament through injury. At the other end of the pitch, Chelsea duo Édouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly are key contributors to a defensive unit that only conceded two goals en route to winning the AFCON.
Another potential round-of-16 opponent, Ecuador, has survived an appeal by Chile to have them thrown out of the tournament for fielding an ineligible player, and a meeting with England in the first round of the knockout stages would be a repeat of their encounter at the same stage in 2006. Hosts Qatar is ranked 50th in the world, third lowest among the 32 qualifiers, and even with home advantage, they are likely to become the second host nation ever to fail to get out of their group, following South Africa in 2010. A meeting with the Netherlands would present a far sterner test for England, with the Dutch ranked eighth in the world under former Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal.
The crystal ball becomes a bit murkier from the quarter-finals, onwards. Topping Group B could lead to a quarter-final with France, if Les Bleus also win their section. But England’s qualifying group sparring partners, Poland, or Denmark are other possibilities. A semi-final would likely be an all-European affair with Belgium, Portugal, or the Group E runners-up (potentially Spain or Germany) the most probable opponents. Brazil, Argentina, or the Netherlands would be the likeliest adversaries should the Three Lions make a first appearance in a World Cup Final in 56 years.
A tougher road to travel?
Of course, if England finishes as runners-up in Group B, things look very different and that would place the Three Lions into the other half of the draw. In this scenario, should England eliminate likely Group A winners the Netherlands, then a sixth World Cup meeting with Argentina is on the cards. England has won three of the five previous World Cup head-to-heads, though La Albiceleste’s 1986 and 1998 wins remain the more memorable matches. The two countries haven’t met since England raised hopes of a strong World Cup performance the following summer with a 3-2 win in a 2005 Friendly — rarely can a game be less well described as a Friendly, though neutral Switzerland was an appropriate venue. A semi-final with Brazil looks like a strong possibility for the winner, with the victor in this half of the Draw likely to meet France, Spain, or Germany in the Final.
Odds on England
If things go to form (do they ever?), England will need to beat Senegal, France, Belgium or Germany, and Brazil in the knockout stages if they want to add a second star above their badge. England’s odds to lift recent World Cups reflected the barrage of patriotic bets which bookmakers always take. In 2002, England was sent off a 10/1 chance to win the tournament, four years later they began the Finals as 7/1 shots, and in 2010 they started the event at odds of 8/1.
A tough draw and a dearth of top-quality players led to the Three Lions being sent off 28/1 outsiders in Brazil in 2014, leading many to wonder if the patriotic betting bias was dead. However, odds of 16/1 in 2018, and a quote of 8/1 this time around, show that patriotism is alive and well, though at least England’s showings at the last two major tournaments have given their backers reason for optimism.
Bring on the World Cup
Major tournaments bring out the Football fan in everyone. I remember a tense moment in a trading room during Euro 2016 with England and Wales deadlocked at 1-1. An English-born trader was sat watching the Three Lions desperately pressing for a winner, with his (Irish) boss standing directly behind him. An England goal now would be very expensive for the company — something the trading director reminded our English trader about several times, as the game drifted into stoppage time. As Daniel Sturridge toe-poked England to victory, the trader concerned was unable to suppress the patriotic urge to cheer the goal, incurring the considerable wrath of the manager behind him.
But then, we’re all Football fans at heart, and a strong showing from the Three Lions augments interest in the tournament. Bookmakers haven’t had to pay out on England winning a major tournament since 1966. That was just five years after the Betting and Gaming Act became law, legalising additional forms of UK gambling, and ushering in an era of betting shops, with penalties for those continuing to engage in street gambling. We got so close to getting through an England World Cup preview without mentioning the word penalties. But, like so many of the Three Lions’ World Cup journeys, it was a case of so near, and yet so far.