What would represent success for England at the World Cup?

What would represent success for England at the World Cup?

Expectations for Gareth Southgate's side are rightly low, but what should be viewed as a success in Russia?

Matt Addison

This year, perhaps for the first time ever, England are heading to a tournament with absolutely no expectation behind them whatsoever.

It happened to some extent at Euro 2016, but even then there was a glimmer of hope. An embarrassing defeat at the hands of Iceland soon changed all that.

Harry Kane et al have already trotted out the usual line of being in Russia to win the competition, but we all know that will never happen – England have never got further than the quarter-finals since 1990 and have had far more talented teams in the meantime.

As captain, Kane could not publicly say anything else, but deep down even he must realise that England are nowhere close to being able to compete at the moment.

Limited talent pool

Much has been made of Leroy Sané, the Premier League’s Young Player of the Year who got ten leagues goals and 15 assists for Manchester City, being left out of Germany’s squad with Joachim Löw deeming him surplus to requirements, but he is far from the only big-name player to be left out of teams unexpectedly.

Emre Can, who is expected to join Juventus having failed to agree a new contract at Liverpool, and Kevin Volland have also both been left out of Löw’s 23-man squad for Russia, while Mauro Icardi, who got 29 goals in Serie A for Inter Milan last season, was not selected by Argentina, and Cesc Fabregas and Hector Bellerin were not needed by Julen Lopetegui’s Spain.

In Brazil, Juventus full-back Alex Sandro, rated at more than £50 million by his club, and Fabinho, who Liverpool have purchased for around £40 million from AS Monaco, were both missing when the Seleção’s roster was announced.

In Belgium, former Everton boss Roberto Martinez decided to leave behind Radja Nainggolan, who was a huge part of the AS Roma team who reached the Champions League semi-finals, in what was described as a ‘tactical decision’.

England, then, with Danny Welbeck among the forwards, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who got two goals and three assists for Crystal Palace this season, are far from being amongst the top echelon of teams on show.

England's hopes limited

With no expectation, the pressure should be off. Get out of the group and anything beyond that should be seen as a bonus. England should be able to beat Tunisia and Panama, but this is England. On paper, yes; on past performance, it is less certain.

Perhaps being one of the most inexperienced squads an England manager has ever selected to take to a World Cup can be a good thing. It can certainly be argued that having no experience is better than bad experience.

On the evidence of recent friendlies, though, simply being entertaining would be a start. Games against Nigeria and Italy, England's two of England's three previous outings, have been undoubtedly dull. 

For all the optimism generated by England's first half against Nigeria, any team in the world can look good with that time and space, and when the chances came they were wasted.

The game against Costa Rica was the most entertaining England have been for a long time, especially in the first half, but even then they only managed five shots on target in the game.

Kane can score goals, but the players that back him up are less clinical. Raheem Sterling has not netted for England since the end of 2015, while others such as Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, seen as a crucial part of the team, have three goals at international level between them.

Should England emerge from the group, which is by no means a given, they would be likely to face Poland, Senegal or Colombia in the round of 16.

Against any of those teams, England would be regarded as marginal favourites, but not by much. Even if they were to progress, Germany would be the likely team to face in the quarter-finals, which would represent an altogether different challenge.

In future, the likes of Jadon Sancho, Rhian Brewster and Phil Foden provide hope, but for now, England are mediocre. Escaping Russia without embarrassment should be Gareth Southgate’s only short-term aim.

In tournaments to come, the ambitions should be moved up a notch, but for now, a run to the quarter-finals following a favourable draw would be significant progression.

Play some nice football on the way, and not go out in embarrassing fashion, and Southgate can consider it success; anything more than that would be a massive over-achievement.


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