World Cup preview: New-look England just wants to see improvement

England doesn’t tend to exit tournaments off the back of a valiant, commendable effort, but rather with a whimper.

But there is hope a refreshed England will fare better at this summer’s World Cup. Adding more variety to tactics and encouraging players to express themselves has resulted in, to all appearances, a happier camp. The club cliques Rio Ferdinand claimed existed during his playing days may have been resolved.

As usual, the Three Lions went relatively unscathed during their qualification campaign, but it is the way they’ve fared against illustrious names in friendly matches since that makes fans believe that maybe, just maybe, the team won’t embarrass itself this time around.

Group stage schedule

Date Opponent Time
June 18 Tunisia 2:00 p.m. ET
June 24 Panama 8:00 a.m. ET
June 28 Belgium 2:00 p.m. ET

Projected starting XI

Against stronger opposition, this would be the likeliest starting XI. Plenty of protection is brought by Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier, while Raheem Sterling is given freedom to float between the lines and double up with either wing-back during flank forays.

Clashes against weaker sides, like Group G foes Tunisia and Panama, would be a good time to swap one of the deep-lying midfielders for Jesse Lingard, who has proven his worth as almost a box-to-box operator for the Three Lions.

Kieran Trippier’s spot will be under pressure from Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Danny Rose will also encounter significant competition from Ashley Young and Fabian Delph.

Manager: Gareth Southgate

Southgate is dragging England kicking and screaming from some of its old-fangled ideas – such as its obsession with a back-four and believing the decision over who wears the captain’s armband is vitally important – and speaks well, but his inexperience and paltry achievements will remain a concern. Relegating Middlesbrough and guiding the Young Lions to a bottom-placed finish of Group B at the 2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championship are probably best left off his curriculum vitae.

Southgate has repeatedly voiced an appreciation for versatility, so it will be interesting to see what in-game changes to shape and personnel he makes. His preference does appear to be a back-three, but players like Delph and Young have been fast-tracked into the squad due to their ability to be moved around a lineup that may revert to a defensive quartet.

Key player: Raheem Sterling

Sterling was cruelly made a prominent scapegoat of England’s ill-fated Euro 2016 campaign under Roy Hodgson, but he enters the 2018 World Cup a wholly different player. He still misses the odd sitter, but his 23 goals for Manchester City in the 2017-18 term are the result of greater tactical sense and ruthlessness developed under Pep Guardiola.

It’s not just his productivity that has greatly improved. In the wake of some more overblown criticism for a tattoo that, as it turned out, was a tribute to his late father, he seems better at shrugging off his critics. “I know I shouldn’t mention it but I’ve got a tattoo of it on my arm,” he revealed of some new ink which acknowledges the No. 10 shirt he has been handed by Southgate.

If Sterling has a good tournament, so will England.

Breakout star: Jesse Lingard

It seems outrageous to name a Manchester United player and serial cup final winner as a breakout star, but Lingard has never been an established starter for his club side. Nor was he appreciated as a valuable international player until he shone in England’s friendlies over March.

What he offers is options. He has looked good when lodged deeper in the midfield, where his underrated intelligence in possession and ball-carrying abilities can be a substantial weapon and a fine replacement for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He can additionally play on the wing or as a second striker.

He also has a knack for scoring important goals, something England has lacked since David Beckham’s talents faded.

Fans should be happy if…

It took a failure to capitalise on the wealth of striking talent in the 1990s and the supposed “golden generation” a decade later to lower the expectations of the average England supporter. Then they were floored by Iceland at Euro 2016.

So, now there should be a welcome sense of realism among England fans: just don’t embarrass yourselves. Advancing to the knockout rounds should be the bare minimum, and England bowing out at the quarter-finals wouldn’t be panned if Southgate’s side went down with some fight.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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