So, we are almost at that stage once again. England, as well as the majority of teams competing in this summer’s World Cup in Russia, will face just two more opponents before kicking off their tournament on 18th June against Tunisia. Two more occasions on which the buffer of a friendly match can be used to excuse the small (or large, in England’s example) quantity of weaknesses still blemishing the team. Having said that, however, much has changed for this England side this time around. For all the head-hanging disappointment that prevailed after Gareth Southgate was selected from the best of what was left following decades of managerial failure, the current boss has at least achieved something which his predecessors never managed. That is, to cull the anticipation around England going into a major tournament completely. Not a jot is expected from our outing in Russia this summer, and that may actually be quite a blessing for the current squad of players, and of course, Southgate. Far too often has expectation from the press, not to mention the fans, hit fever pitch during the months building up to a tournament, only for failure and a customary sacking to follow. Only time will tell whether the country will wisely stay its course and continue to keep expectations in check, or whether the anticipation will build as uncontrollably as ever, should England win those two remaining warm-ups against Nigeria and Costa Rica in early June.
For now, at least, the most recent round of International fixtures told us plenty about how England, amongst many others, are shaping up ahead of this summer’s World Cup. Here are 8 Key Talking Points:
1.Three is becoming key for England
At no other position within Gareth Southgate’s England squad does such a quandary present itself to the manager heading into his first major tournament this summer. Granted, in the goalkeeping position he has the largest gap between experience (Joe Hart on 75 caps) and inexperience (Pickford and Butland on 9 between them). His midfield, barring injuries, is fairly assured; selecting three from four out of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford is a nice problem to have and Harry Kane has the number 9 jersey nailed on.
It is in central defence, on the other hand, that Southgate’s selection becomes a tricky one to ponder. In terms of formation, it needn’t be. England has boasted one of the tightest defences throughout qualifying, conceding on just three occasions whilst playing with three at the back most of the time. Injuries have occasionally seen Southgate revert to a two-man approach at the back, but his go-to lineup has seen his side opt for three, and they have looked all the better for it.
English football in general has witnessed a recent revival of the three-man defence of late. Most successfully, Antonio Conte famously reverted to a three-man system early last season which revolutionised his Chelsea side, who ended up winning the Premier League. Managers Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, amongst several others, have also used it to good effect over the past couple of years.
Far from being as negative as the tactic may seem, adding an extra man into the centre of defence, with the right balance of personnel playing further forward, can drastically increase a team’s control over the game. This has undoubtedly attracted Southgate in recent months, with the World Cup fast approaching. Having been in the driving seat now for almost two years, Southgate will be well aware that, on paper at least, many of the midfields on show in Russia this summer will be superior to his. As reliable as Henderson and Dier are, and as good a second half of the season Oxlade-Chamberlain is enjoying, they lack in several key areas in which the tournament favourites do not. Playing three at the back, at least, will give them a better chance of matching up against their opposition, due to the potential that a good, ball-playing centre-back can bring to the team.
And here lies the choice for Gareth Southgate. A three at the back system requires defenders who are comfortable on the ball; to bring play out of defence and begin the attack themselves, whilst also retaining the ability in judging the right moments to step into midfield to pressure the opposition. Arguably, England’s best defensive technician of the past two decades was Rio Ferdinand, a player who possessed the silky passing of a central midfielder, whilst also being blessed with all the attributes a top defender requires.
Of the current crop of English defenders, Manchester City’s John Stones is the closest to Ferdinand in his ability to pick out a pass that can turn defence into attack. Very comfortable on the ball, the assumption is that he can become a top all-round defender within the next few years. His inexperience is a worry for Southgate, however. When he has remained injury-free this season, he has looked largely comfortable in Guardiola’s attacking side. In patches, however, he continues to cause concern for his manager, and due to his youth, is certainly more liable to make mistakes than the likes of Kompany and Otamendi, who usually make it into the City line-up ahead of Stones when fit. Inexperience aside, Stones will likely start in one of the three defensive berths this June.
It is those that will join him, however, that Southgate will be considering heavily over the next couple of months. Of late, and in particular during the most recent round of International Friendlies, Southgate has opted to buck the experience trend and add some fresh faces along the back line. The two perhaps most notable among them, James Tarkowski and Harry Maguire, are currently enjoying excellent seasons for their respective clubs, both with an outside shot at playing European football next year. With both at the age of 25, there is fairly little to separate the two centre backs entering the prime of their career, and it is quite probably that one or both of them could well be courted by the bigger teams come the summer transfer window. The chief problem here, once again, is the vast inexperience the pair hold at International level – just the five caps between them. It’s likely that both could be called up to the final squad this summer, but for both to be sent in to partner the also relatively inexperienced John Stones is surely a gamble Southgate will not be willing to take. The likelihood is that Harry Maguire, having spent a little longer in the England set-up, may receive the nod ahead of Tarkowski.
Where, then, does that leave the more experienced hands at Gareth’s Southgate’s disposal, those who have been handed the shirt in previous tournaments and have been ultimately found wanting at the highest level? Manchester United’s Chris Smalling, capped 31 times, certainly falls into this category. A solid presence in a United side that boasts one of the best defensive records in the League, he would have been a nailed-on starter in many of England’s previous campaigns. With his recent omission from the squad for the Netherlands and Italy friendlies, however, and with Southgate stating in no uncertain terms that Smalling did not possess the required qualities on the ball for his system, it appears the United player is not his man. A defender from United’s squad that Southgate does seem to favour, however, is Phil Jones, despite missing the most recent round of fixtures through injury. Indeed, injury has been something that has plagued Jones throughout his career so far, and has consistently brought a halt to any good run of performances he has enjoyed for club and country. When fit, however, he has often been a player called upon by Southgate, and his predecessors, and should he stay healthy and in contention for Manchester United for the remainder of the season, the chances are Jones could well slot in at the back for England.
All set then? Or could Southgate yet spring a surprise on us this summer? Well, of late he may have hinted that something different is on the cards. Taking a leaf out of Antonio Conte’s formation manual, Gareth Southgate could be starting to see Manchester City’s Kyle Walker as someone who could move in from the wing and take up the slot on the right of a three, leaving the role of right wingback open for Kieran Trippier to slot into, as was the case in both recent friendlies to excellent effect. Would Southgate be willing in a major tournament to oust a specialist central defender to fit Walker into the middle? Well, quite possibly. In addition to his much-lauded attacking abilities, Walker would add a much-needed element of aggression into the centre of defence which could come in handy against the likes of Romelu Lukaku in their group stage clash versus Belgium, whilst bringing a player of his pace certainly won’t hurt. With England in possession, a combination with former team-mate Trippier is certainly an exciting proposition on the right.
And what of those seemingly outcast from the England set-up in recent times? Gary Cahill, at one point arguably England’s first-choice central defender, has not played for his country since last summer, whilst his oft-time partner Phil Jagielka has to look back a year earlier to remember his last. Jagielka appears certain to be omitted from the World Cup squad, though Cahill may yet travel despite an off season for Chelsea. At the other end of the spectrum, this tournament may come too soon for the likes Liverpool’s Joe Gomez, Swansea’s Alfie Mawson and Newcastle’s Jamaal Lascelles.
There are plenty of options on the table for Gareth Southgate at the back this summer, and with no one player fending off poor form or injury for long enough of late to firmly stake their claim, it could well be that the England manager does not discover his best combination until the latter stages of the tournament. Let’s hope that England make it.
2. Lingard proves starting credentials
Jesse Lingard of Manchester United and England must surely be adoring life this season. The local lad from Warrington, Cheshire is currently enjoying what is by far-and-away the best campaign of his professional career and, with the expectation that his sparkling form holds for the remainder of the season and a little luck in the injury department, will almost certainly be heading to Russia as part of England’s squad. The chief question remaining: should he be a guaranteed starter in Gareth Southgate’s first XI when their tournament kicks off against Tunisia on 18th June?
It’s a question that he has been answering remarkably well all season for both club and country. Although he is still seen as somewhat of a newcomer to first-team action for both United and England, you certainly wouldn’t class him as a youngster, by today’s standards at least (he’ll turn 26 before the year is out). He’s one that has had to bide his time with great patience; turning in loan spells at no fewer than four teams before finally collecting his first run of games for United. In truth, it was only following Jose Mourinho’s appointment as United manager in the summer of 2016 that Lingard has been afforded the regular opportunities to blossom into the dynamic forward that we have been seeing recently. He has already netted more this season that the previous two campaigns combined, and is on course to pass his own personal record for appearances made during a club season before April is out. Add to that, scoring his first goal for England against the Netherlands ticks yet another box for a clearly impressed England manager.
Southgate clearly sees Lingard as part of his plans for the World Cup, and two starts from two games (with a goal and an assist to boot), indicates that the England manager is preparing to hand the forward a starting spot this summer. Statistics aside, it’s easy to see why Southgate, and indeed Mourinho, have turned to Lingard so frequently of late. In an England side unfortunately bereft of a midfielder of genuine creative genius (think de Bruyne, Iniesta, Eriksen), Lingard provides the much-needed dynamism that so often links the play of Henderson and Dier with the main man in front of goal, Harry Kane. His tireless running in between the lines have so frequently opened up teams this season, and has proved time and again that he can pick out a pass between the defence to unlock the door and send players in behind. Raheem Sterling, another certain starter for England in Russia, is similar in his ability to find spaces, but often does so on the wing. Lingard prefers to drift in-field, collecting the ball before looking to pick out a pass, or driving at the heart of the defence.
Whether the United man can play effectively in the same team as Tottenham’s Dele Alli, is another matter. Though different in terms of physique and playing style, the two like to occupy similar spaces on the field, and Southgate will be aware of previous England sides who have attempted, and failed, to shoehorn excellent players into similar roles (yes, Lampard and Gerrard).
For now, however, the future certainly looks bright for Lingard, as he comes into what are theoretically his peak years. Let’s hope Gareth Southgate, and Jose Mourinho, can make the most of his undoubted abilities.
3. A Messi business for Argentina
Much can change between now and when the FIFA World Cup commences in Russia this June. For Lionel Messi, he’ll be very much hoping that it does, dramatically.
The Barcelona and Argentina ace was afforded a rare opportunity of watching his country from the sidelines last week as he was forced to sit out through injury. Whilst his hamstring problem is not serious (he is expected to be back in action for Barcelona this weekend), the prospect of Messi missing a match completely is a rarity; since 2008, the little master has never played fewer than 50 times for club and country over the course of a season. It goes without saying that, being one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, your team are going to miss you during your absence.
This was certainly the case as Argentina were hammered 6-1 by a revitalised Spanish side intent on rediscovering their best form since their 2008-2012 winning era. As the stars who lit up that period for Spain have ebbed (or in the case of some, still remain to a lesser degree), new talents such as Isco, Koke and Asensio have been ushered in. It was indeed Isco, of Real Madrid, who took centre stage with a fine hattrick as Spain swept the floor with a ragged and seriously undercooked Argentina side.
Whilst, however, the gulf was clear between the two nations on the pitch, so it was in terms of their intent also. The XI that started the match for Spain will not differ greatly from that which starts the tournament in Russia this June. That cannot be said for Argentina who, in addition to Messi, also started without the peerless Sergio Aguero who has been in fine form for Manchester City this season, as well as the missing dynamism of Angel Di Maria and starting with Marcos Rojo in central defence who has only recently returned from injury. It’s safe to say that Argentina will be a much-changed side this summer.
What is not clear, however, is whether they will fare any better as a result of it. Despite possessing a player with qualities as destructive as Lionel Messi, as well as numerous other talented stars, Argentina have consistently failed at the major tournaments over the years due to their glaring inabilities to gel their best players into a great team. That they reached the final of the most recent World Cup in Brazil was largely due to moments of excellence from the likes of Messi, coupled with a determined defensive unit. Whether they will be able to improve upon that this time around may be a step too far, despite many wishing to see Messi finally hold aloft the one trophy that continues to evade him.
What certainly was clear from this performance against Spain is that Messi brings far more to this Argentina side than his physical abilities on the pitch, monumental as they may be. Despite his diminutive stature, the forward is a natural leader within the team, and his fellow players turn to him time and again both on the pitch and inside the dressing room. Without Messi, Argentina simply would not have qualified for the forthcoming World Cup in the first place; a rousing performance accompanied by a brilliant hattrick in the final qualifier against Ecuador saw to that. He is someone who has the ability to elevate the whole team to a higher level, mentally and physically, and despite a number of very talented players accompanying him to this summer’s World Cup, Argentina’s chances will lie very much solely with him.
4. Bale Force in China
In what has proved a semi-exciting upgrade to the usual round of International friendlies which most nations have recently completed, Wales had the honour of competing in the second edition of the China Cup. Dubbed this year as the ‘Green Cup’ (host city Nanning is known as China’s Green City), Wales joined the Czech Republic, Uruguay and their Chinese hosts in a straight knock-out competition of sorts, providing at least some motivation in what is for many a mere distraction during the final third of the domestic calendar.
For all his continuing woes with Real Madrid, the round of fixtures provided a welcome distraction for Welshman Gareth Bale, who returned to Madrid as the mini-tournament’s top goalscorer, despite Wales ultimately losing in the final to Uruguay. It was his performance in the previous match, however, that has led to the Welsh forward being given the title of ‘Dasheng’, or Monkey King. Far from being a derogatory term, the Monkey King is like a God to the Chinese, and as one of the headline stars attracting all the attention in Nanning, it’s a title most appropriate for the once-most expensive player in world football.
Football in China is now a huge deal. Attendances of the Chinese Super League are permanently on the rise, President Xi has set out his vision of China becoming a footballing super power and lifting the World Cup by 2050, and a string of mega-money transfers from, in particular, European teams has only served to stir the craze. Recent arrivals Yannick Carrasco and Jose Fonte have followed the likes of Oscar and Hulk to China, and with the target of 50,000 specialist soccer schools across the country by 2025, it will not be long before a generation of Chinese starlets begin to appear.
For now, however, it is still Europe’s elite that send the fans crazy, and the opportunity to see the likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and of course Gareth Bale has been relished. Bale’s hat trick against China in the semi-final sent those already adoring the Real Madrid man into pandemonium, and suggested that his reputation amongst the Chinese fans has already turned into legend. In doing so, he became Wales’ record goalscorer, a proud moment for a footballer still only 28. Consider too that in doing so he took the record away from Liverpool legend Ian Rush, the feat is even more remarkable Despite Wales’ failure to qualify for this summer’s main event in Russia, with Bale in the team fans will be convinced that a run deep into a tournament (such as Euro 2016), may not be out of reach.
5. Eight is the magic number for Buffon
There are precious few accolades that remain unclaimed by the legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who recently collected his 176 cap for the Italian national side during the latest round of International friendlies in March. One among them, of course, is the UEFA Champions League which has continued to elude Buffon over his otherwise stellar career, collecting three runners-up medals in the process. Unfortunately, with his Juventus side having been thrashed 3-0 by holders Real Madrid in the Quarter Final first leg this week, it appears highly unlikely that his fortunes will be any better this time around. With this season shaping up to be his last, arguably football’s greatest ever goalkeeper is likely to be spending his retirement pondering what might have been when it comes to the Champions League.
Should his career have taken place several decades ago, this void in his medal collection may not have hurt quite so much. Not until relatively recently has a Champions League success meant quite as much to the footballing elite as it now does, and whilst a World Cup victory with Italy in 2006 will rightly remain the highlight of Buffon’s career, he would certainly have viewed a Champions League success in the same light. When you consider that Pele’s legend is built almost solely on his three World Cup successes with Brazil, nowadays the feeling is that a footballer’s legacy will be judged at least equally, or even more so, by the heights they reach in club football.
Internationally, at least, his standing as one of the great figures of World football is assured. One of the few outstanding talents who go on to represent their country at all age levels, from Under 16’s all the way up to the Senior team, he won his first full cap as the youngest Italian goalkeeper since the Second World War, at the tender age of 19 year, 9 months. Now, with a further 175 international caps (80 as captain), 77 clean sheets, 3 FIFA World XI awards and of course a 2006 FIFA World Cup Winners’ Medal, Buffon stands as the most-capped Italian footballer ever.
Aside from a Champions League Winners’ Medal, another accolade is looking increasingly unlikely to escape his grasp, however. Buffon currently sits in fourth place of all-time International appearance makers overall. He finds himself a mere 8 appearances behind Ahmed Hassan of Egypt who currently holds the top spot in the history of the International game. Interestingly, none of the three players above Buffon in this particular list have a World Cup Winner’s medal to their name (having played for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, respectively), and his potential failure to climb to the top of the list is highly unlikely to inflict as much torment as the lack of a Champions League medal.
Many of the greatest footballers are often afforded to opportunity to decide for themselves when their career ends. For Buffon, at the fabulous age of 40, it appears that he may have delayed that decision just a little too long for many Italian supporters, and more importantly, the national team selectors. Whilst recent performances have highlighted that the great goalkeeper is indeed past his best, outcries of ‘Time to go’ are a little harsh. Though there are undoubtedly other fine Italian goalkeepers to step up to the plate, some are either too junior or inconsistent to yet claim obvious superiority over Buffon.
What is clear is that Buffon, who reverted his first International retirement last year to play again this March, will almost certainly not be able to rack up the remaining eight caps to make him the most-capped footballer in International history. It is in these situations that fate often offers up a moment of perfect sentimentality, and with Italy due to face the Netherlands at Buffon’s home stadium in Turin this June, that could well be the perfect opportunity for the world to wave farewell to a genuine footballing hero.