England are used to going into major tournaments on a wave of negativity and despair.
Either they’ve been set up for an almighty fall by a media machine that seems to love nothing better than eating its young, or – as has been the case more recently – the team is written off as a bunch of no-hopers who will be devoured by the bigger names from around the world.
This time, expectations probably hit rock bottom after the Iceland debacle two years ago and the fact that Gareth Southgate – whose last senior managerial job was with Middlesbrough a decade ago – is now the manager. And yet, this Three Lions side is arguably the most exciting squad at the tournament.
It’s clear the squad doesn’t match up to Spain, Brazil, France or Germany. But star quality isn’t the point. England have a team full of young and hopeful talent, bags of pace and a couple of players on top form. They play with an interesting formation and like to control games. Whether they win the thing or not, they are worth watching.
One thing has helped with all of that: owning their own media coverage.
England haven’t left it up to the national press to cover this team. They’ve done it themselves. On social media they’ve led the way, showing off their players and creating videos. And instead of seeing the media as a foe to be jostled with, England have embraced the fact that their players are interesting to people. Instead of fighting it, they’ve gone with the flow.
So, ahead of the opening game with Tunisia on Monday night, this is a team who will excite more than just England fans. Because of the feel-good factor and the makeup of the side, this is the hipster team, the one everyone wants to see on social media. This is the side who create the buzz even if they don’t win. This is the AS Roma of World Cup 2018 – a thoroughly modern side who interest the neutrals.
More importantly, though, this is a team who could genuinely go far. But despite some of the omens, not all the way.
Back in 2010, a Spain side made up of a core of players who starred for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona brought home the country’s first World Cup. And despite defeat in their opening game against Switzerland, it never really felt in doubt.
In 2014, a Germany team again featuring a core of Guardiola’s boys – this time from Bayern Munich – were the winners after the Mannschaft dominated the tournament. Their squad was a machine where all the parts just seemed to fit together, and that was in no small part down to the Catalan coach.
This year…. It’s a little bit too easy and probably very wrong to proclaim that the same thing will happen again. Guardiola’s Manchester City side was again stunning on their way to ultimate victory in the Premier League last season. England might have a fair few Citizens in their squad, but few of them make up the core of Southgate’s team in the same way that Barcelona and Bayern Munich dominated the central positions in the last two World Cup winning squads.
Indeed, whilst 2010 and 2014 saw the triumph of a collective style of football over individual brilliance, 2018 might see the balance tip. The last three Champions Leagues have been won by a Real Madrid side who really just showed that they were a collection of irresistibly brilliant talents and that proved unbeatable.
The Guardiola mould – or, worrying for England, even the Mauricio Pochettino one – may no longer be the dominant trait. This season’s PFA Player of the Year for the Premier League wasn’t a representative of the best team, and one who broke almost every record available to them. Such is the modern trend towards individual brilliance that it was a players from a team who finished fourth who won the accolade, even if Mohamed Salah was inarguably scintillating.
Those are the omens and it will probably be another team who lift the golden trophy this July. The fates of Manchester City, Liverpool and Real Madrid might show that the world of football has moved into a new era since Pep Guardiola’s club sides reigned supreme over the World Cup, too.
But despite that, there’s still one cause for optimism: it’s not about winning or losing that will define England’s tournament. This time, the Three Lions are worth watching. And that’s a victory in itself.
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