Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the upcoming World Cup, announced in mid-May, has the third youngest average age for a Three Lions lineup in tournament history.
The decision to leave out seasoned professionals like Joe Hart (75 caps) and Jack Wilshere (34 caps) has understandably been dubbed ‘bold’ by critics, however the injection of youth into a side left wanting in recent tournaments could prove a fine choice.
Inclusion of fledgling Liverpool full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold and acrobatic Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope points to bravery from Southgate, as opposed to Roy Hodgson’s seemingly ‘safe’ picks for the 2016 Euros.
But, typical of the Three Lions nowadays, the lingering cloud of potential sorrow hangs all too ominously over the chosen players, and it remains a doubt whether the youngsters can take increasing amounts of pressure.
Alexander-Arnold, Pope and Ruben Loftus-Cheek join Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and John Stones amongst the less experienced internationals, whilst Gary Cahill and Jordan Henderson represent personnel who England will turn to for the leadership and know-how.
England 23-man World Cup squad
GOALKEEPERS: Jack Butland (Stoke), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley)
DEFENDERS: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Leicester), Danny Rose (Tottenham), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Manchester United)
MIDFIELDERS: Eric Dier, Dele Alli (both Tottenham), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
ATTACKERS: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal), Jamie Vardy (Leicester)
RESERVES: Tom Heaton, James Tarkowski (both Burnley), Lewis Cook (Bournemouth), Jake Livermore (West Brom), Adam Lallana (Liverpool)
Youth or experience?
Southgate would have undoubtedly been toying with that question in his mind before picking the 23 to represent England in Russia this summer.
Lallana or Loftus-Cheek? Pope or Hart? Alexander-Arnold or Bertrand? The list goes on.
And Southgate went for youth every time.
With only 449 caps between them (19.5 per player on average) and three tournament goals, many of this World Cup squad will be relishing a major tournament for the first time.
The likes of Ashley Young, Marcus Rashford and Alexander-Arnold all took to social media to voice their excitement for making the cut, but that enthusiastic anticipation will quickly transform into the elevated pressure of pleasing an entire nation.
Zestfulness through the choice of keen, hungry players seems to be the goal Gareth Southgate is looking to achieve, but the England stereotype could remain chained to the latest squad, as it has done since before this millennium began.
Years of woe—will the stars of tomorrow put it behind them?
No one expects England to actually win the World Cup (apart from the cluster of overly-optimistic fans). The way in which the Three Lions have crashed out of recent tournaments, though, suggests improvements need to be made sooner rather than later.
A juvenile performance versus a well-drilled Germany in 2010 is now looked upon as merely the tip of the iceberg—a dreadful 2014 World Cup campaign was then followed by the disastrous 2016 Euros many would rather not talk about.
And on these occasions, even stretching as far back as 2006—when arguably the best individuals of England never properly gelled as a team, the hardened internationals hardly met their potential.
Inexperience could work in the Three Lions’ favor on that front. The expectations for the players themselves—most of whom are without World Cup acumen—are far lower compared to when Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard pulled on the England shirt. Their sparkling Premier League careers heightened assumptions they could produce on the biggest stage. For this fresh-faced squad, however, recent breakthroughs in the top flight mean the international standard is yet to be set.
A notable desire and motivation, seen consistently in the Premier League amongst these stars-to-be, is hopefully translated onto the global stage. Previous England stalwarts perhaps had a ‘been there, done that’ outlook on their later tournaments, but it is an unprecedented experience for the new boys.
It is becoming preposterous for England fans to continue clinging onto the Class of ’66 as the only piece of joy in a disjointed history, and something needs to give.
Where do previous problems lie?
One of the tasks that makes the England job a somewhat poisoned chalice is identifying the issues and finding a way to sort them out. Picking up the pieces from Euro 2016 doesn’t seem the easiest of tasks, considering it was one of the worst tournaments in a long while.
Managing just four goals throughout, a stale attacking force headlined the plaguing problems but a creaky defence, disorganized structure and lack of leadership also escalated the frustration.
Goalscoring prowess in Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, both hitting double figures in the Premier League this term, means the back line is naturally more scrutinised ahead of this tournament.
Gary Cahill has been part of a fragmented Chelsea side, Phil Jones never put together a consistent run in the Manchester United team and John Stones is rumoured to be leaving the Etihad stadium before summer is over. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose can provide width and attacking outlets in the full back positions, however centrally (as we saw two years ago) England’s rearguard is disconcertingly susceptible to capitulating under pressure.
Questions to be answered, points to be proved
It seems like déjà vu before every single major tournament, but the sense of optimism has a stronger aura about it this time around. Maybe it is the auspicious-looking squad, or perhaps the World Cup buzz triggers dreams of glory most England supporters have never savored.
Roy Hodgson looked as if he had no real direction in the European championships, but flourishing performances versus Germany, Brazil, Holland and Italy in recent friendlies point to more positivity here. Tunisia await the Three Lions four days after the tournament gets underway, and that is when the many questions will begin to get their answers.
Southgate’s tactics are supposedly in place, but you can never rule out disappointment which has been emblematic of England for far too long.