While international friendlies are not always the perfect barometer to judge how a national team are faring before a major tournament, it does however give an insight to see different players feature for their country and how well they are gelling as a collective unit. There is room for optimism when assessing Gareth Southgate’s England team ahead of the World Cup.
After England swatted aside the Netherlands in what was a competitive match that went down to the wire, critics were quick to suggest that this Holland side are nothing compared to what they used to be in times gone by. While that holds some truth and England fans shouldn’t therefore think success is around the corner, Ronald Koeman’s team proved that they are in better shape that some gave credit for by beating Portugal, the European Champions, 3-0.
Before a ball had even been kicked there was a sense of optimism around the England side. For once, a Three Lions manager had picked the majority of his squad on form, rather than just the names on the back of their jerseys. Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson had a habit of favouriting players that were out of form and was a major part in why the atmosphere around the squads they picked was so hostile. That, and their dreadful performances.
Difficult Tests Against Holland and Italy
Against Holland, England were cautious in their approach, but one thing stood out above anything else: their willingness to play out from the back. Southgate has mentioned it before, and was the reason as to why Chris Smalling was axed from the squad, but these were the first glimpses of the players actually undertaking his instructions in a difficult match.
The winning goal, scored by Jesse Lingard, was born from Jordan Pickford’s ability to read the game in front of him and bombard out of his goal to mop up danger. Instead of booting the ball 40 yards aimlessly, the Everton goalkeeper controlled it, took it around the Netherlands’ forward, and played a pass into the middle of the park for Jordan Henderson. From here, the ball was quickly pushed out-wide with runners moving up the pitch. Danny Rose’s low cross was fortuitously deflected off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and fell kindly for the Manchester United attacker.
Lingard sent a low driven 20-yard shot past the goalkeeper to score his first England goal.
It was a well-worked goal that Southgate would have been pleased to see in action, especially away from home. England dominated the possession stats and should have also had a penalty after Marcus Rashford was fouled by Matthijs de Ligt.
While it wasn’t pretty for the whole 90 minutes, it was an important win for this relatively inexperienced Three Lions squad. Portugal showed that you don’t have to play the most daring and dazzling football to win games at a major tournament with their win at the 2016 European Championships.
In England’s second friendly against Italy, the overall play and plan from Southgate’s men was much clearer – they built up swiftly from the back, not afraid to play one-touch passes when pressurised, and released the speed of Ashley Young, Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy and Lingard.
At times, it proved too much for the Italians, as a quick counter attack led to fouls being committed on Sterling all match. One quickly taken free kick punished the Azzurri as Lingard’s intuition told him to play the ball quickly into Vardy’s path, who found himself one-on-one with Gianluigi Buffon. The Leicester City forward took the ball into his stride and expertly finished into the top corner of the net.
Harry Maguire stood out in the away game in Amsterdam, commanding his area with considerable ease given it was his fourth appearance for the Three Lions. The step up to international football can be daunting for some, but the Leicester City centre back has taken it in his stride and has assured Southgate he should be on the plane to Russia.
The England manager made quite the tactical decision by placing Kyle Walker as one of the three centre backs – on the right side – but it worked brilliantly and gave England a player who has immense recovery speed and agility to feature alongside two more orthodox central defenders.
Walker might not be hugely experienced playing as a centre back, but he made the position his own in both games and gave the Three Lions another dimension with the Manchester City player being able to play out from the back.
Jesse Lingard has faced a certain amount of criticism for his club in recent seasons, but England fans will be delighted with how he has contributed to the national team since making his debut in 2016.
The Manchester United forward scored one and created another over the two games, in which there were only two goals scored by England. He was instrumental in both games and will prove to be a decisive player for Southgate come the World Cup this summer.
England are not expected to win the World Cup, or, in truth, getting anywhere near challenging for it. An overwhelming success would be to reach the quarter finals, but it does wholly depend on the draw if they are to qualify out of the group stages.
International friendlies can be deceiving and no one should be under the illusion that England are a top tier team just yet, but they do provide some hope and optimism before the World Cup. Not everything is doom and gloom around the national team for once.
Under Southgate, the Three Lions play a far more expansive and effective game, which is much more pleasing on the eye and actually gets fans out of their seats. This England side might be inexperienced, but sometimes that naivety approaching a major tournament can be a positive rather than a negative.
It will be interesting to see how England will break down both Tunisia and Panama, who will sit back and defend for their lives, given their troubles in the past with the likes of Iceland, who opted for the same tactical showing. If Southgate can add a driving and penetrative midfielder into the squad – a player like Jack Wilshere – then England will feel confident when approaching those games.
This current crop of English players are a reason to be cheerful ahead of this summer, and if the England team can play without fear and actually enjoy their time out on the pitch, there will be a feel good factor around the national team that has been missing for years.