With the 2018 World Cup now just four months away, there is one nation that is particularly eager to redeem itself after a disastrous 2014.
In a development that many believed should have seen Roy Hodgson resign two years sooner than he did, England picked up a modern all-time low of one point from a possible nine. Though young and relatively inexperienced, Gareth Southgate’s time with the U23 squad is significant. Having been required to make ruthless decisions and avoid having ‘favourites’, he also appears far more likely to pick players on merit than his predecessor Hodgson.
While some would assert that Hodgson did not have his favourites, one needs only to look at the fact that he played a half-fit Jack Wilshere at Euro 2016, as opposed to Danny Drinkwater, then a newly-crowned champion with Leicester. His decision to accommodate Wayne Rooney, a man with one eye on international retirement, in an ever-changing system, is a further example of why he so often drew the ire of England fans.
Though England players and manager alike seldom seem to learn from the past, there appears to be a more ‘merit based’ culture these days. Nonetheless, with the countdown to the announcement of Southgate’s final 23 now underway, there are several clear favourites for certain starting positions. This is how they compare to the outfield players that meekly bowed out with a 0-0 draw against Costa Rica in the final group round of 2014.
RB: Phil Jones (2014) v Kyle Walker (2018)
With Walker’s pace and ability to overlap, compared to natural centre-half Jones, this is a no-contest regardless of who is in the technical area. Having been a major component in defence, as Tottenham scored successive podium finishes in 2016 and 2017, Walker has translated his Tottenham form to Manchester City, retaining his place in the league’s most competitive lineup.
SCORE: 2014 WC Squad 0-1 2018 WC Squad
CB: Cahill/Smalling (2014) v Stones/Maguire (2018)
As very close second-favourites behind Belgium, England command a relatively high buy/sell price on Sporting Index to win Group G, but the campaign to justify it begins in the heart of defence. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling could well be a central defensive pairing once again in 2018, but there are now plenty of other contenders at their peak, or at least quickly reaching it.
For Manchester City, John Stones was nigh-unbeatable at the start of 2017/18, before a cruel injury put paid to any further playing time before the winter schedule. For the most part, Harry Maguire has been a composed figure at the back for Leicester, but with Cahill and Smalling both playing for better teams and performing well under Southgate, it could be a case of ‘better the devil you know’ this summer.
2014 WC Squad 1-1 2018 WC Squad
LB: Luke Shaw (2014) v Danny Rose (2018)
Shaw’s career has been blighted by injury, while Rose became a figure of contempt amongst some of the Tottenham faithful after a dispute over pay. Today, neither man could approach this World Cup with the perfect psyche for big games. Nonetheless, it is Rose that boasts greater familiarity with Southgate’s philosophy, and this shades it for him.
2014 WC Squad 1-2 2018 WC Squad
RM: James Milner (2014) v Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (2018)
While Milner represents the perfect fit for the traditional 4-4-2 deployed by Hodgson against Costa Rica four years ago, Oxlade-Chamberlain thrives in the era of swift counter-attacking and overlapping. Perhaps a case of old habits dying hard, it was this style of play that Hodgson failed to effectively champion, as England produced turgid football throughout two major tournaments.
2014 WC Squad 1-3 2018 WC Squad
CM: Lampard/Wilshere (2014) v Henderson/Dier (2018)
In his prime, Frank Lampard had no equal, but some would say that 2014 was one World Cup too many for the Chelsea legend. Meanwhile, the exact manner of Jack Wilshere’s deployment seemed to change with every game while Hodgson was in charge of England. Four years and one Bournemouth loan later, Wilshere looks significantly more motivated, but he may yet lose out to Eric Dier, who has been a revelation at Tottenham since the 2014 World Cup.
Jordan Henderson has once more been a reliable figure for Liverpool, although the defensive aspect of his game still requires fine-tuning.
2014 WC Squad 1-4 2018 WC Squad
LM: Adam Lallana (2014) v Raheem Sterling (2018)
Having been deployed on the left flank on occasion by Southgate, Sterling represents a potential step up from Lallana’s oft-questioned role on the left side under Hodgson. This is perhaps an unfair comparison, given that Sterling typically plays in a more advanced position. However, Sterling is in the form of his life for Manchester City, scoring a rate of goals even he could not have expected after years of underachievement. Whether he can operate so consistently on the left flank is a question for another day.
2014 WC Squad 1-5 2018 WC Squad
CAM/ST: Barkley/Sturridge (2014) v Alli/Kane (2018)
Comparing the front pairings of 2014 and 2018, whether a two-pronged attack or a dagger to the heart of defence, is difficult. There is the interminable feeling that Ross Barkley and Daniel Sturridge might have done far better with a more dynamic midfield quartet around them, with both men entering the 2014 World Cup on the back of sensational seasons with (respectively) Everton and Liverpool.
Dele Alli and Harry Kane may be untried in the World Cup, but they have a telepathic partnership at Tottenham, and Gareth Southgate would be foolish in the extreme to abstain from using it at the 2018 World Cup.
FINAL SCORE: 2014 WC Squad 1-6 2018 WC Squad
A resounding win overall for the class of 2018. It is easy to assume that club form will translate onto the international stage, but the methods and style of the manager are almost always the foundation elements of how a team performs. While Gareth Southgate’s appointment as England manager was not exactly met with universal approval, he brings a more relevant type of experience to the dressing room.
Though many pessimists would argue otherwise, it can only improve from here.