England ready for World Cup test but doubts still persist
The semifinals of the World Cup in 2018. The final of the European Championship in 2021.
England has been trending in the right direction at major soccer tournaments after decades of underperformance by the nation which invented the game.
So, is England on the path to finally capturing its first international men's title since the World Cup in 1966?
Recent results suggest no. The team coached by Gareth Southgate is on a six-match winless run, the longest such streak the national side has ever had entering a major tournament.
Some players are out of form or simply not playing at all for their clubs. Certain positions — center back, left back, central midfield — are short of top quality. And there are still doubts about Southgate's tactical ability and in-game flexibility, especially in the biggest matches.
What Southgate and his class of 2022 do have, however, is recent experience of going deep at major tournaments. So, for England winger Raheem Sterling, it's a time to keep a cool head while fans and sections of the media are losing theirs.
"We are always under that pressure to win, and this small loss of form is not something we need to panic about," Sterling said. "We now have a big opportunity coming up in the winter to go out and show what we can do again."
The English media can play a major role in whether the England soccer coach remains in his position, something Southgate acknowledged last month. And support for Southgate seems to be wavering heading into the World Cup.
"The cycle of war with the media — we are somewhere in the middle of that," he said. "It's an experience I knew at some point would probably come with this job."
The thing is, England hasn't had it this good for a generation, with only one other coach — the late Alf Ramsey in 1966 — getting the men's team to a major final. Southgate seems to be paying the price for his perceived pragmatic tactics and for never having been a club manager of any great repute.
It means that should England fail to get out of its group or exit in the last 16 or even the quarterfinals, the pressure might ratchet up on Southgate so much that he might choose to leave after six years in charge.
"Of course we understand how the mood changes with the results, and has changed," Southgate said. "I'm realistic about that, and I will be judged on what we do in Qatar."
The England player likely under most scrutiny will be Harry Maguire — if he is still in the team by the World Cup.
The center back has become the target of increasing criticism, even vitriol, after highprofile errors for England and at club level, where he has been dropped by Manchester United. Maguire has typically played better for England than for Man United and Southgate stood by the center back for recent internationals.
Southgate did say, however, that the situation could change if Maguire fails to regain his place at United before the World Cup.
It might be Southgate's biggest call in Qatar, given there aren't many top-quality alternatives at center back. Continuing to play an out-ofform Maguire could damage England's chances and, in turn, jeopardize Southgate's future as coach.
"In these moments, we've got to back our best and our most experienced players," Southgate said, "unless we're in a situation where it's almost untenable."
For years, England's standout problem in the big matches at major tournaments has been its lack of control in central midfield. The issue doesn't look resolved heading to Qatar.
For this World Cup, it's set to be Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham as the midfield two, with Kalvin Phillips potentially unlikely to be involved because of injury.
Rice and Bellingham have their strengths — the former has boundless energy, the latter is one of the most talented young players in Europe — but running a top-level international match might be beyond them at this stage.
England lacked that midfield control when squandering an early lead against Croatia in the World Cup semifinals in 2018 and against Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
What England would give to have a midfield playmaker of the technical quality of Luka Modric or Pedri González or Kevin De Bruyne.
Harry Kane was the top scorer at the 2018 World Cup with six goals and added another four during Euro 2020. Keep up that sort of rate and he'll be England's all-time leading scorer by the time the World Cup is over.
The Tottenham striker has 51 goals for England, two behind Wayne Rooney's total for the national team.
It is a matter of when, not if, the 29-year-old Kane goes to No. 1, so he is unlikely to be feeling the pressure of surpassing Rooney.