Is Gareth Southgate's England better than Roy Hodgson's last World Cup side?
Four years ago in Brazil England produced its worst performance at a World Cup. Finishing bottom of a group including Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Italy, the Three Lions only point was a goalless draw in the dead rubber fixture with group winners Costa Rica. Despite a squad rich in talent England scored just twice in three games. It never really looked like going far in the competition. You’d have thought things could only get better. Then the side crashed out of the Euros to Iceland. It turns out the Scandinavians are legtimately good but no lion likes to lose to a cub. Gareth Southgate has ably succeeded Hodgson and loose-lipped Sam Allardyce yet the book remains open on whether he has brought the club back
Roy Hodgson, a man with almost 40 years' managerial experience, took a very experienced squad to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. That squad included Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Glen Johnson. That's over 350 caps. The veterans traveled with an influx of younger, more exciting players such as Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw. It should have been the perfect blend for a major tournament. Instead, it turned out to be a hot mess. The side performed dismally but Woy somehow avoided the sack.
Sam Allardyce appeared a more personable alternative. All too soon he proved himself far too engaging, putting himself in hot water while BSing a group of potential investors who were really undercover journalists (of a different sort than yours truly). Seeing their ideal choice talk himself out of the job, the FA reverted to a low-key candidate.
Coming in Gareth Southgate had very little managerial experience at either club or international level. He was sacked from his first managerial role at Middlesbrough in 2009 after being relegated from the Premier League the previous season. He then took a three-year sabbatical from management before assuming the England U21 reigns. Southgate led the Young Lions to the 2015 Euros. Like Hodgson's senior team, his finished bottom of its group. That squad included Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard, and John Stones, players he will almost surely lean on in Russia. That's hardly encouraging.
Still Kane has transformed into the game's most prolific hitman, Lingard has proven able to rise to big occasions, but Stones has been spending too much time in the trainer's room to become a consistently reliable defender. Joe Hart will probably still start in goal given there are few promising alternatives. The Man City exile is a shadow of his former self, warming the bench for West Ham.
The centre of the park has imploded. Whereas it was once difficult to partner two world-class talents like Lampard and Steven Gerrard, the question is now whether Southgate has any talent at all on which to call. Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson appear his deep-lying options. Jake Livermore's credentials will be heavily effected by West Brom's resistance to relegation. In the advanced role, Jack Wilshere is still looking to rediscover the form that made him the one standout in Brazil. Every time he gathers some momentum with Arsenal, he takes a knock. This past week it was a turned ankle.
Defensively (again) Phil Jones has been trapped in a similar ordeal with Manchester United. Gary Cahill has been displaced by Andreas Christensen at Chelsea. Phil Jagielka is old. On the bright side Kyle Walker is a far better option than Glen Johnson. England will miss Leighton Baines' set-piece ability on the other flank. Temperament aside, Danny Rose isn't an improvement on the bookish Toffee.
Dele Alli hasn't joined club mate Kane in developing his game. The Tottenham man had a Euros to forget in 2016. Meanwhile Lingard is posing a credible challenge for the number ten role at club level although he hasn’t impressed for Gareth Southgate as yet. The United player is undeniably very good. England requires great to contend.
With so much doubt, it's impossible to say with certainty whether progress has been made. England's Brazilian group was tricky from the off with both Uruguay and Italy in the mix. This time, only Belgium poses a credible threat and Southgate has had the luck to face Tunisia and Panama first. Progression theoretically should be achieved before Roberto Martinez's side lines up opposite his. Unfortunately, England hasn't done theoretical too well in its last two tournaments.
Nevertheless, the knockout round is there for the taking. That would be an improvement but it's almost impossible to imagine the Three Lions venturing any further.